October 2004
The beauty of the little X
Computer scientists say print is better for U.S. election balloting
You’re probably aware of an election going on south of the border. Like the last U.S. presidential election, this one could turn out to be a real squeaker. You’ll remember the various problems they had in Florida with punch-card machines and ballot recounts. Largely because of that controversy, up to 29% of the votes this time around will be collected by electronic voting machines. Unlike Canada, where Elections Canada handles voting regulations for the whole country, the U.S. has over 3,000 voting jurisdictions deciding rules and procedures.
The new high-tech voting machines will only require the touch of a finger to record a vote. It is a completely paper-free system. No muss, no fuss… and lots of problems. In trial tests across a number of states, when voters indicated candidate A, candidate B got the vote. Machines frequently started whipping out thousands of votes. Or machines crashed, deleting thousands of votes in the process and disenfranchising those who had voted with them. Not being computer technicians, the poll workers in most cases had no idea how to restart or fix computer problems.
Independent computer scientists who have examined these machines have found major program flaws and serious security problems. The crux of the problem, according to a number of computer scientists, is there is no paper trail. There is no way of verifying the number of votes; you just have to hope the touch-screen computer got it right. If it’s a close result, the validation of a ballot recount will not work because there is nothing to recount.
Toronto Star columnist Lynda Hurst recently published an insightful piece on this disaster-in-the-making. She quoted Stanford University computer scientist David Dill. “Suppose you had a situation where ballots were handed to a private company that counted them behind closed doors and burned the results,” Dill told Hurst. “Nobody but an idiot would accept a system like that. We’ve got something almost as bad with electronic voting.”
A Florida Congressman added: “Too think that these machines are infallible, it’s an absurd argument.” Or, as the saying goes, “To err is human, to really screw things up, requires a computer.”
The reliability of computer voting is starting to become such a concern among political parties that the Republicans in Florida have advised their voters to vote using absentee ballots (similar to our advance polls) which all use paper ballots.
It is interesting that in the age of computers, the Internet and our rush to go high-tech, people still trust the printed word over the electronic world. The permanency and stability of print is becoming one of printing’s biggest advantages. Even computer techies are on the printers’ side in this case. You have got to love it.
For the U.S. election, it may go down in history not as who won, but as the election where you knew who won in jurisdictions using paper ballots, but you’re not really sure in those jurisdictions that used election computers. More seriously, the ramifications of electronic voting gone awry are profound. Confidence in election results is central to a working democracy. Just look at all the countries where voting is rigged and nobody believes the outcome, often leading to coups and bloodshed.
I don’t think the U.S. situation is a case of conspiracy. It’s just a screw-up. But if the election is close, there’s the danger it will be interpreted as a conspiracy. Let’s hope the winner is victorious by a comfortable margin.
Alexander Donald is the publisher of Graphic Monthly Canada.
New Products
Special Feature