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Rage against the (voting) machine

BY JENNIFER SUSSEX

Published October 8, 2008

After the calamity known as the 2000 presidential election, public outcry forced the U.S. Congress to pass the Help America Vote Act of 2002. HAVA solved the problem of those pesky “hanging chads,” giving states about $3.9 billion to switch from the punch-card voting system to touch-screen machines, among other changes. But due to the way these machines are monitored (or rather, not monitored), this election is precariously close to mirroring the contentious election of eight years ago.

With HAVA’s help, the high-tech, computerized touch screens that have replaced paper ballots appear to have resolved the issue of determining voter intent in the event of a recount. Few besides residents of Sarasota, Fla. realize that some models of the new machines actually eliminate the possibility of an accurate recall entirely.

In the 2006 race in Sarasota, tallies revealed that Democratic candidate Christine Jennings lost to Republican Vern Buchanan by about 368 votes. The results wouldn’t have been an issue, but it turned out 18,000 members of the community “undervoted.” In other words, 18,000 voters bizarrely cast a non-valid vote for neither Buchanan nor Jennings.

Sarasota polling places used Electronic Systems & Software, Inc.’s iVotronic touch screens, which record votes on a digital memory card similar to a flash drive. However, the iVotronic only stores a copy of the voter's selections on its digital memory card. No paper copy is ever created. This means that if the 18,000 undervotes were caused by a problem with the computers themselves, a digital recount would produce similar figures, confirming some doubts already surrounding the new technology.

With the exception of a few more votes in favor of Jennings, the results of the digital recount were the same as the previous tally, leaving the rest of the 18,000 undervotes unexplained. Some have argued that voters deliberately abstained from voting in the mudslinging Buchanan-Jennings campaign. But even after the 2000 election, it is unlikely that the acidic aftertaste would be enough to discourage 18,000 from participating. Rather, it is more likely that the software was responsible for the undervotes.

An internal memo from high-ranking ES&S employees dated August 2006 confirmed that the iVotronic machines had flawed software. The executives discussed a bug that created a delay in displaying the voter's choice. If voters became perplexed and clicked their choice again, it would deselect the original vote. Could that have happened 18,000 times?

Robert Frost, an associate professor in the University of Michigan's School of Information, postulates that our culture revels in its love for the quick “technical fix,” likening technology to a magic wand that is presented as a solution to all of our problems. As a result, the touch-screen machines entered the market for voting machines without adequate testing or litigation to enforce quality standards.

Under federal laws created in 2002, the testing of the machines is still not technically required — and if it does take place, the vendors of the voting machines fund it. And because the companies fund it, the testing is considered private. After all, the results of a private study do not have to be disclosed to the public, rendering the average citizen incapable of holding these companies accountable.

HAVA should now recognize that the companies that create these products can’t be trusted to conduct independent testing, if for no other reason than because fixing problems with their machines costs them money. The computer's source code — the programming in the computer itself — should be opened up. An open-source code would allow the functionality of the machines to be tested at academic institutions, where the findings could then be made accessible to the public. The computer scientists who would test and improve these products could also then eliminate the use of the problematic, paperless machines like the iVotronic.

Without a paper trail and properly tested machines, the 2008 election could become another fiasco. At a time when the country is more active — and more polarized — than ever in recent history, we must be able to take a more active role in developing the technology with which we cast our votes. Right now, the only ones voting are the corporations.

Jennifer Sussex is an LSA senior.


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