Sunday, July 09, 2006

Voting and Technology

More news on the electronic voting front, and it's not good. Link through, and you find some really disturbing stuff:
Ballot programming errors are a new threat at every new election, and it is time election officials realized it. Problems are cropping up all over the country, and there is no indication that they will abate.
I'm in the software business, and I know that any software system with more than trivial complexity is prone to errors, and that those errors can be difficult to detect. So there are systems put in place to detect and/or prevent such problems from going into production.

One maxim is that the person who writes the code isn't the one who tests it. Sort of like having an editor go over the text you write (wouldn't that be a nice luxury in the blogosphere?). The notion is that a different pair of eyes can see things the writer can't or won't. There are times when this is impractical, and there are ways to get around some of the problems, like writing the tests first, rather than after writing the program, or having two people working on the program at the same time, catching typographical and logic errors as they go in.

But it appears that a lot of the jurisdictions dealing with newfangled voting technology aren't approaching the matter that way, often allowing the vendors of their electronic voting equipment to program and test the systems (again from VoteTrustUSA):
Either the vendor does the programming, or the county does it. The vendors want to do that work because they make a lot of money for the service. ES&S requires that they do the programming for the AutoMark machines in many of their contracts. Counties could do the work themselves but the cost of the programming software is so expensive that it is hard for some counties to justify the expense.
I'll say it again. In a democracy, nothing is more important than counting the votes honestly and correctly. The voters have to have trust, and not blindly trust, that those who run their elections do so capably and accurately, with their only goal being correctness.

Doing this on the cheap, or doing so without understanding the complexity, such that one cannot judge the accuracy of the results, is an invitation for abuse. And history has shown that people will try to exploit election systems. At least election officials demonstrated that they understood the concepts of stuffing physical ballot boxes. It is not clear that they have the same level of understanding of the current wave of voting technology.


sarette said...

"It is not clear that [Election Officials] have the same level of understanding of the current wave of voting technology."

I'm cynical and all, but I'm pretty sure election officials have a pretty good grasp of voting technology, and firmly believe they like it just fine the way it is.

Chard said...

I think you're confusing election officials with politicians.

Election officials are bureaucrats, and want things to go easily and smoothly. In this context, that means not having to learn new stuff like how to tell if your voting machine works. So you happily rely on the vendor to tell you it works.

Politicians are the ones with a stake in the outcome of the election, rather than the process of the election. At least some of them are quite thrilled with the state of electronic voting.

Chard said...

A sharper thinking me says to replace "politicians" in the first sentence with "elected officials."

That is, "election officials" is distinct from "elected officials."

Time for my nap.