Thursday, January 03, 2008

Footnote to the footnote

Updated Okay, you've got your state-issued photo ID, your passport, your birth certificate, your note from the police department, your properly signed and dated Permission to Leave Your Security Sector form, everything you need to cast your elusively beneficial vote in our treasured, almost sacred, national process.

Now you just have to wonder if you can actually get to a voting booth. From USA Today for Tuesday, via Buzzflash:
Five years after passage of a federal law to create electronic registration databases to deter voter fraud, the new technology is posing hurdles that could disenfranchise thousands of legal voters, a USA TODAY examination finds.

From Florida to Washington, voters have been challenged because names or numbers on their registration forms did not exactly match other government databases, such as Social Security and motor vehicle agencies. "We know that eligible people have been thrown off the rolls," says Justin Levitt, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
Quite possibly a lot of them:
Colorado, for instance, knocked nearly 20% of its voters off the rolls between the 2004 and 2006 elections. ...

In Wisconsin, Elections Board Executive Director Kevin Kennedy says, "the users keep complaining that it's too complex." In Texas, Henderson County opted out of the database after voters griped about being dropped from the list. "I was just afraid to trust it," says voter registrar Milburn Chaney.
But the state with the worst problems - well, here's a surprise - is Florida,
where a Gannett News Service analysis found more than 14,000 people whose voter registrations were disputed by the state because they didn't match other databases; about 75% are minorities.
Forida seems to have a real problem getting elections right, as I've observed here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

But anyway. You've gotten to the voting booth. Now your only worries are one, if there is a way to vote there and two, if there is, will it actually count your vote correctly. MSNBC raised the question on Monday:
With the presidential race in full swing, some U.S. states have found critical flaws in the accuracy and security of their electronic voting machines, forcing officials to scramble to return to the paper ballots they abandoned after the 2000 Florida debacle.

In December alone, top election officials in Ohio and Colorado declared that widely used voting equipment is unfit for elections. ...

The states of California, Ohio and Florida have found that security on touch-screen voting machines is inadequate. Testers have been able to disable the systems and even change vote totals. ...

[I]n tests, researchers in Ohio and Colorado found that electronic voting systems could be corrupted with magnets or with Treos and other similar handheld devices.

In Colorado, two kinds of Sequoia Voting Systems electronic voting machines used in Denver and three other counties were decertified because of security weaknesses, including a lack of password protection. Equipment made by Election Systems and Software had programming errors. And optical scanning machines, made by Hart InterCivic, had an error rate of one out of every 100 votes during tests by the state.
The New York Times Magazine raised the banner on Sunday.
Introduced after the 2000 hanging-chad debacle, the [electronic voting] machines were originally intended to add clarity to election results. But in hundreds of instances, the result has been precisely the opposite: they fail unpredictably, and in extremely strange ways; voters report that their choices “flip” from one candidate to another before their eyes; machines crash or begin to count backward; votes simply vanish. (In the 80-person town of Waldenburg, Ark., touch-screen machines tallied zero votes for one mayoral candidate in 2006 - even though he’s pretty sure he voted for himself.) Most famously, in the November 2006 Congressional election in Sarasota, Fla., touch-screen machines recorded an 18,000-person “undervote” for a race decided by fewer than 400 votes.
The article opens with the story of recent elections in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.
About 200,000 voters had trooped out on the first Tuesday in November for the lightly attended local elections, tapping their choices onto the county’s 5,729 touch-screen voting machines.
But in doing the count, the system failed repeatedly and so many printers had broken down that there were not the paper receipts to do a recount. Yes, the machines could print a back-up copy, but, in the saddest sentence I've read in this whole debacle and one that sums up the reasons for my opposition to the suckers, the Times said of Jane Platten of the Board of Elections:
She could only hope the machines had worked correctly.
She could only hope. Right along with the rest of us. About one-third of voters, it's expected, will be voting on touchscreen machines come November. One-third of us will have to "only hope" the machines worked as they are supposed to because all too often there is no way to check. This is how we're supposed to run free elections - on machines maintained by private companies which use proprietary software that in many cases public officials are not even allowed to see and which we can "only hope" record votes accurately? This is what's supposed to provide "clarity," to make us feel secure in our elections?

I've often noted my doubts about electronic voting and the lack of a paper trail. This link has some posts on the matter, as does this one; there is some difference and some overlap because I tend to use the terms "touchscreen voting" and "electronic voting" interchangeably. I'm glad to see - despite the short-term hassles it will cause - that a number of states are wising up.

Updated with the excerpt from the New York Times article and some additional commentary.

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