Election 2004

10 Nov 2004

Paul R. Potts

Well, the election came and went. Although I am very troubled by all the reports of voting anomalies, voter intimidation and disenfranchisement, and perhaps outright fraud, I don’t believe that the election irregularities were sufficient to throw the key states. So, let me go on the record: I accept the results of the election. Bush won.

That said, when I mention election irregularities, I don’t want to hear “oh, you’re just mad because your guy didn’t win.” There’s a lot of that flying around. It is maddening; it puts the election on the same footing as a football game, and just frames democrats as sore losers. There were serious irregularities. The most compelling evidence is the Berkeley study. Bev Harris and her team find mismanagement and suspicious behavior everywhere they look. Ballots left in boxes, lost, shredded, thrown in the trash. I could easily be convinced that the true intent of the voters was not expressed, but as of yet the evidence is suggestive and not conclusive.

Now, what it suggests is that every American of any political affiliation should be outraged. The people who treat our ballots like yesterday’s newspaper should be fired or, better yet, prosecuted. Voter intimidation and disenfranchisement is not the same as trying to shout down your football team’s opposing fans at a game. The sports metaphor is absolutely the wrong frame, to use Lakoff’s word. Deliberate disenfranchisement or vote tampering is criminal.

I’m a technologist, and it amazes me that anyone even slightly familiar with computers would entrust an election to them, at least to any computer system as it is generally known. I believe that a properly auditable and simple e- voting system could be developed, but any responsible official using direct-read, untraceable “black-box” voting machines should be thrown out for gross negligence. These people aren’t stupid; they want their dirty fingerprints on our elections to remain invisible.

But your vote is far too important to trust to the vagaries of technology, and I say that as someone who has been programming computers since 1977. In fact, I wrote an electronic voting system, to run a mock election at my high school. It ran on the Radio Shack TRS-80, and wrote individual votes out to casette tape. It didn’t yield an auditable paper trail: there was no way for the individual voters to confirm that the computer recorded the vote that they intended. But at least the series of vote records could be run through again one-by-one for a recount; they existed as discrete records, so at least the procedure that counted them could be verified. Now, we don’t even have that. We’ve got machines yielding negative counts, or counts of thousands of votes in a precinct with only a few hundred total voters.

I was just a kid, and wrote my program for fun. But even then I knew that each vote should be recorded separately and serially, to avoid problems with a crashing program or power outage, and to allow this kind of verification testing. The real election isn’t a hobbysing project, so we should take it seriously. Read what Bruce Schneier has to say about e-voting; it’s the most sensible thing I’ve read on the subject. Technologies are not panaceas: a paper receipt is not a panacea, and encryption and digital signatures are far from panaceas. But they are certainly a thousand times better than any unverifiable, falsifiable, unsigned and unauditable vote recording process.

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