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Friday, November 14, 2003

Touch Screen Voting Machines
You'll remember that after the Florida 2000 election, there was a little problem with punchcard ballots not accurately recording the votes of many people. Many elections officials across the country are now upgrading their election equipment to systems that use electronic touch screens, similar to ATMs. There are a lot of good things about these machines. They appear to be more accurate -- it is impossible to cast an overvote (voting for more that one candidate if you're not allowed to) and there are many fewer undervotes (not having a vote recorded for any candidate) than with punchcards. These machines are also more user friendly for people who are blind, don't read English well, etc.

But, there is one problem. There is simply no way for the voter to verify that his or her vote has been recorded correctly. Just about anyone who has ever used a computer knows that sometimes things go wrong -- they crash, they freeze up, they are misprogrammed, you name it. Further, there is the potential that someone could deliberately misprogram the machine to miscount votes and rig an election. It's hard for the average layperson to know how big a threat this is, but there are at least three reasons to be concerned:

1) Many computer scientists say this is a problem.
2) The companies that make these machines refuse to reveal their programming code, so the public can't check it for errors. One of these companies, Diebold, left some of their code available on the internet. Some people found it, and have claimed it's pretty shoddy stuff.
3) Some of the owners of these companies have strong political connections.

A simple solution would be to require that these machines, like ATMs, print out a paper ballot showing how a person has voted. The voter could then verify the ballot before it is dropped into a traditional ballot box. These paper ballots could then be used for a recount should there be any controversy as to the electronic tabulations done by the machine. I've tested a machine outfitted to do precisely this, and all the leading manufacturers have told me that its not difficult to equip machines with printers (heck, many gas pumps now do this!)

Unfortunately, many defenders of the touchscreens have fought the paper trail idea because they fear that acknowledging any shortcoming in these machines might discourage people from using them. That's the wrong approach. Better to do all we can to make these machines failsafe and then give the public good reason to trust them, rather than sweeping potential concerns under the carpet.

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