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Ignorance On Display

Time has an article, Can This Machine Be Trusted?, about the introduction of the new voting systems. Their subhead:

The U.S.’s new voting systems are only as good as the people who program and use them. Which is why next week could be interesting.

together with their final paragraph:

In a country of 300 million, it is far preferable for partisans, poll workers, defensive voting-machine manufacturers and voters to adjust to the new technologies, eliminate their weak spots and work to keep human errors to a minimum. In that way, voting by machine may someday be no more mysterious than making a visit to the ATM.

illustrate a basic problem with a lot of people who select equipment and those reporting on it.

I have to assume that the reporters and supervisors of elections probably use ATMs. They assume that since they do something often, so does the rest of the world. I do not assume that “everyone uses ATMs” because most of my local friends don’t. Frankly, I probably don’t use an ATM more than every three or four months for weekend emergencies. I like to have canceled checks for accounting purposes and to keep my checkbook balanced. An ATM withdrawal that you forgot to enter can cause a nasty surprise.

There are a lot of people who have been voting the same way for a half-century and now they are being asked to change their habits. They don’t want to change; they don’t see why they should change; and they don’t like computers. When you implement a change that people didn’t want and the change involves equipment that has a high failure rate, the next change could be the supervisor of elections.

What is needed is an open competition to design a voting machine because the current commercial products are not up to the task of guaranteeing a smooth, error-free election.


1 Jim { 10.29.06 at 8:04 pm }

I like to raise the distinction (not originial to me) between “voting machines” and “ballot-printing machines”. What we need is a machine that allows a voter to, anonymously, print a valid ballot that both people and machines can read with essentially zero chance of error. The voter can then review the machine-printed ballot and (if it is an accurate representation of their voting intent) deposit it in the ballot box/scanner.

This gives both the efficiency of machine counting and the audit trail of paper ballots.

(Of course, unless it *also* checked for the voter’s pulse, it would not have stopped the late Richard J. Daley. ;-))

2 Bryan { 10.29.06 at 8:52 pm }

That’s the way I would go, and you can use a standard PC, not a special purpose machine to do it. Since the computer isn’t counting the votes, it wouldn’t have to be secured. There are existing, off the shelf solutions that enable the handicapped to use a standard PC, and the local government could use them for other things between elections.

The software can prevent people from marking too many boxes and over-voting and remind them if they didn’t vote on an issue.

We use mark/sense ballots in my precinct, and the system works well.

3 Steve Bates { 10.30.06 at 10:13 am }

The Post Office is a constitutionally mandated institution. In accordance with “conservative” principles (they’ve got an interesting notion of what is conservative), the Post Office has been largely privatized, and IMHO it is much the worse for it… not ideologically, but practically.

The same is true of privately built and run prisons. I don’t know about Florida, but Texas has had its share of problems.

Introduce the profit motive into a major public function, and you no longer have an institution that serves the public interest first. Instead, it serves the perceived interests of the owners or stockholders of the business.In the case of voting systems, that perceived interest includes delivering an almost wholly faulty product. It is faulty either through negligence or by design; I lean toward the latter, because a faulty (i.e., hackable) product serves the perceived business interests of the vendors.

What is needed is not an open competition: what is needed is a Boston Voting Machine Party. No, I don’t plan to do that, but goodness knows, if there’s a kind of technology everyone would be better off without, it’s electronic voting systems.

4 jamsodonnell { 10.30.06 at 11:30 am }

I feel releived that we still used paper ballots and hand counting. I hope to hell we don’t go down the electronic votign route

5 Anya { 10.30.06 at 12:01 pm }

In case y’all haven’t seen it yet, there seem to be problems with early voting in Florida already.

Why am I not surprised? 🙁

[Registration required on Miami Herald site]

6 Bryan { 10.30.06 at 12:13 pm }

Steve, don’t get me started on the “new” post office. My Mother use to receive cards and letters to “Gramma” with just a partial address from my niece and nephews in half a week, and now waits 9 days for a first-class letter, correctly addressed, from a town 30 miles away. For the “sake of efficiency” all local mail goes to Pensacola for sorting before being sent back for delivery, while it used to be sorted locally for local addresses.

As for prisons, in addition to the private operations we have “faith-based prisons” operated by ministries.

Oh, yeah, one of the reasons I back the colorless Jim Davis is because the Republican promises to continue the “Bush legacy” of privatization which has wasted millions of tax dollars.

Voting is a core operation for government. Ask any business professional, you never outsource a core operation if you plan to stay in business.

If you buy this equipment from any of these companies you are forced to pay for an annual support contract. You aren’t allowed to put the support contract out for bids because the equipment and software is proprietary. No one would do this in business.

Jams, don’t ever let them take that paper ballot away. Having suspicious people from every party watching the ballots being counted is the best way of ensuring they will be counted.

These people are not taking office for months. There is no reason not to use paper ballots.

7 Bryan { 10.30.06 at 12:31 pm }

Anya, it’s the damn touch screens. The things can’t hold calibration after they have been used for a while. All of the major methods of building touch screens suffer from these problems, which is why the “targets” on screen are always so large. Dust and skin oils build up on the screens, cover the sensors, the plastic expands and contracts from the environment…a host of things send the miserable pieces of garbage out of calibration.

8 Anya { 10.30.06 at 3:18 pm }


Been there, been a victim of that. Wal-Mart uses those touch screen card readers at the check out, and they’re just miserable. Use the “pen” to touch the screen or you may end up paying for your order twice. OTOH, a local grocery store uses TS card readers without pens; no amount of jabbing it with your finger will make it work. I use a good ol’ Bic Stic pen…

Ya don’t suppose the voting machine problem might be alleviated if a “poking device” were provided to each voter? Think of all the germs you could skip.

9 Bryan { 10.30.06 at 4:12 pm }

They could just use a mouse and not damage the screen at all, because touching anything on those screens does damage them.

On the various methods of using a touch screen, the stylus method is usually the most accurate, whether the stylus is wired in or just a “stick”, it tends to provide the best pressure to the proper locations.

10 Anya { 10.30.06 at 6:49 pm }

There are some people who are clueless about the use of a mouse: my late mother-in-law was one. Even though she worked for DEC for years teaching word processing, her computer use was entirely in the pre-GUI era.

Touch screens were probably thought to be the easiest to use by the most people; it does require a certain amount of manual dexterity to maneuver a mouse. Furthermore, anything that is attached to a computer-like device by a cord is likely to be swiped at some point, like the handsets off of old-fashioned pay phones. These things cost money….

Paper ballots are still the most cost effective (if not fastest) form of voting.

What is that axiom? A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that works.

11 Bryan { 10.30.06 at 7:46 pm }

I can see a need to help people who are disabled, but the overwhelming majority of people would be happier with paper ballots. If you want to speed up the process you can use the mark/sense system for the first count and you can use a computer to help the disabled to vote, but the touch screen systems are just too flaky be be trusted.

I have never heard of a catastrophic failure of a number 2 pencil, that’s why the Russian space program uses them instead of the special pens that NASA had designed for space.