Hacking Democracy: Some Things Were Not Meant to be Computerized

As a crucial election draws near in America, the debate over computer voting systems is again getting attention, notably from tonight's airing of Hacking Democracy on HBO. However, from some of the reviews of this program (like this one in the Boston Globe) it is clear that even well-educated and otherwise intelligent people don't "get" the problem.

The most vital ingredient in a fair election is trust. The current generation of electronic voting machines are already untrusted (and you can trust security expert Bruce Schneier to provide authoritative analysis of why this is).

Critics of current systems have advanced numerous approaches to making future electronic systems trustworthy. While this is laudable, I contend that the goal is not achievable. No hardware programmed by people will ever deliver the same level as trust as a system of voting based on hand marked paper ballots. To imply, as the Globe's critic seems to do, that electronic systems are no more problematic than their predecessors, is to miss the point. There is a known history of addressing and resolving past problems to the point where the electorate accepted the outcome as fair.

Certainly the replacement of hanging chads with software bugs is not a step forward, but reverting to pencil and paper is not necessarily a step backward. And objections to analog voting methods based on the need to get quick results simply don't cut it as far as I'm concerned. For myself, and quite possibly a majority of voters, a reliable result at 5PM the next day beats a dubious results about 2AM.

So, for the record, and after very careful consideration, my position is that the use of programmable electronic devices to cast votes is not now, nor ever will be, as trustworthy or as verifiable as it needs to be for elections thus conducted to be considered fair.

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