The demon in the machine

Paul Krugman takes on the issue of paper trail voting, which I guess is a sign that this has really hit the liberal outrage mainstream after kicking around as a third-string complaint for a while. The point in contention goes something like this. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), the federal law enacted two years ago, creates new standards for voting machines, voter registration protocols, and provides funds to state governments to replace punch card (like Palm Beach) and lever machine (like NYC) systems with more accurate systems, like optical scan ballots or touch screen terminals. The law specifies that all voting systems must produce a paper record capable of 'manual audit capacity.'

That seems like a pretty straightforward requirement until one confronts the special requirements of touch screen systems which run on computer software. Another requirement of HAVA requires that voters must be able to verify their vote before casting it. This is simple on a lever machine or optical scan system, where what you see is invariably what you get. But with a touch screen system, it is completely possible that a program could display one ballot for voter verification while electronically registering another.

It doesn't help that the process of developing and selling these touch screen machines has been just about as shady as possible. The biggest manufacturers have deep and suspect political ties across the country, and there are numerous stories of shady lobbying practices. Furthermore, because private corporations are building and programming the machines, their software is proprietary. That means no one but company employees has access to the programming code, both in development, debugging and repair--basically, that states and localities must resign the integrity of their elections to the good faith of private corporations. It's an ugly situation, and, given recent coverage and now Krugman's column, we may be entering a new era where elections conducted on the new systems are categorically worthy of suspicion.

Critics of the new systems say there is only one way to ensure that the touch screen systems record votes accurately: require that touch screen systems output a paper ballot which voters can verify and is then either directly counted or used to audit the total count produced by the machines. This is the ONLY way, say paper trail supporters, to be 100 percent sure that our elections are beyond reproach.

Now, there are some practical issues at stake here. Supporters of touch screen technology warn that the price of this extra security measures may be sacrificing the touch screen option altogether, which, of course presents some valuable advances in how we conduct elections. Touch screens not only provide the disabled with new options for casting a private vote, they also offer the ability to produce ballots in any language and make voting a more user friendly experience. What's more, these systems will be adaptable to future innovations, such as an ATM-style voting regime, where an ID number or card can call up a personalized ballot from any terminal in the country.

With budget crises already ensuring that state and local governments will be spending no more than the federal funds allotted to them on new voting systems, any price difference on the already expensive touch screens could make the technology prohibitively expensive, thereby forfeiting an opportunity that is unlikely to come again anytime soon.

But finding the middle ground here has proven next to impossible. The federal body which was is supposed to oversee voting system technology can offer little guidance as its formation was repeatedly postponed, and major touch screen manufacturers appear to have politicians across the country tucked firmly in their pockets.

With little hope of reclaiming transparency and effective regulatory oversight on touch screens, it seems the fail safe measure of voter verifiable paper trails may be our only chance to avoid a future where demoralizing uncertainty lurks around every contested race.


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