December 08, 2006

Everything counts in large amounts

I'm pleased to hear that, six or eight years later than people should have actually started caring urgently about it, people are starting to care urgently about verifiable voting:

By the 2008 presidential election, voters around the country are likely to see sweeping changes in how they cast their ballots and how those ballots are counted, including an end to the use of most electronic voting machines without a paper trail, federal voting officials and legislators say.

New federal guidelines, along with legislation given a strong chance to pass in Congress next year, will probably combine to make the paperless voting machines obsolete, the officials say. States and counties that bought the machines will have to modify them to hook up printers, at federal expense, while others are planning to scrap the machines and buy new ones.

It's always seemed pretty obvious to me that voting machines with software you're not allowed to see and no independent means of confirming a vote count other than the software you're not allowed to see are not a great means of providing confidence in election results, and so I couldn't be happier about this news, assuming it actually comes to pass. But some people apparently disagree with me about paper trails:

In Harris County, Tex., which includes Houston, electronic machines can print a paper tally, but do not give voters a paper record, meaning they would not comply with Mr. Holt’s bill. Beverly Kaufman, the county clerk, said she and other election officials elsewhere disliked the paper requirement.

“Every time you introduce something perishable like paper, you inject some uncertainty into the system,” Ms. Kaufman said.

That's right! People could set the voting records on fire! Where would you be then, with your precious "verified voting"? Huh???

Seriously, though, this makes my head spin. How does letting voters confirm that their votes were actually recorded correctly, and then saving a hard copy of those results increase uncertainty? Oh -- right, because then when the tampered-with voting machines show a different set of results, people will be uncertain whether or not they can trust the election outcome, but if we just get rid of the damn paper trail, people will never know better, and everything will be fine. I get it now.

Posted by Francis at 04:57 PM

Actually, the argument of the uncertainty paper introduces into the process is not so much about the perishability of the paper, as it is about the increased level of complexity that paper processes insert into the technology. In short, adding a printer (or, in the case of Houston, dramatically increasing the number of printouts made) onto the voting machine adds a lot of mechanical (as opposed to strictly electronic) moving parts, which are far more likely to malfunction, jam, or generally gum up the works. And a voting machine having to be taken off-line in the middle of voting day can, I think, justify concerns about an increase in uncertainty over an entirely paperless alternative.

This is not necessarily a compelling argument against a paper trail, but neither is it as ridiculous an argument as you make it out to be.

Posted by: Scott at December 8, 2006 08:19 PM

She's right, paper is totally perishable. I want them to give me a granite slate with my vote carved into it. Preferably by a cute wise-cracking little pterodactyl.

Posted by: Doug Orleans at December 8, 2006 11:02 PM

Thanks, Scott, I appreciate the clarification. It's true that as the number of mechanical bits of something increases, the likelihood of something going awry does as well. Maybe one solution would be to make the printers a replaceable component of a voting machine, so that if a printer failed, it could be replaced without having to replace the whole machine.

Anyway, the thing that made her argument seem spurious was her use of the word "perishable", which gave her response an air of "I'm just trying to come up with any reason to oppose changing the system we have, because I am a lazy bureaucrat."

Posted by: Francis at December 10, 2006 11:04 AM

And I'll grant that I have little doubt that her use of the word "perishable" was in response to a total lack of understanding of what it was that she was saying, from a technical standpoint. I would like to believe that she was briefed on the issue by a staff person who actually understands the technology, but with a county clerk's office, even of a sizable county, that isn't especially likely.

Posted by: Scott at December 11, 2006 08:30 PM
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