Voting In The Computer Age

Reading Another Dem’s interview with Bill O’Neil made me think about my views on electronic voting and how it can be implemented.

As a techie, let me say that I am not against the use of electronic voting, as long as it can be free and fair. But, with the way that electronic voting is today, there is no way of knowing whether or not your vote counts. To clarify the following, I am speaking of the touch-screen voting systems, not any of the paper based systems (such as OCR or card readers).

Two of my main concerns are with what we are told by the manufacturers of the electronic voting machines – that it is not possible to have a paper trail and the programs for the machines are proprietary and cannot be reviewed by any outside entity.

First, let’s look at a paper trail. The providers tell us that it is not possible to create a printed receipt for your vote. This is entirely false. Any piece of computer equipment can be fitted with some form of a printer. In fact, the same machines used for voting are not much different than the credit card processing machines or cash registers used at stores. In one of my past lives, I worked for a company with a chain of retail outlets. During this time of working with the company, we reviewed credit card/check processing systems. One of the companies that we evaluated was Diebold. Diebold not only designs the voting machines, but they also sell many other products, including ATM’s and retail systems. One of the requirements for credit card and check processing is to have a paper trail, not only at the point of sale in the form of a receipt, but in the back room, to print an audit of the day’s transactions. For a company like Diebold to say that it’s not possible, is completely inaccurate. I bet if you were to look at the back of the voting machine you would find a connection for a printer already installed.

Implementing a paper trail for voting is very simple. The voting stations where you cast your vote would have a small printer attached to it. This printer would be no different than the one that prints out your receipt from the ATM or grocery story. For those who completely trust the vote system, you can choose not to print a copy of your vote. If it’s privacy that you are worried about, the receipt does not have to print the name of the candidate you voted for, but instead could print a number or code that is associated with the candidate and the ballot number assigned to you. It is also possible to print two copies – one that you keep and one that can be dropped in a ballot box in the event of a close race or for auditing purposes. On the back-end of the system at the board of elections, a standard laser printer could be attached to run auditing reports to verify the results.

Second, the proprietary code. The problem with most of the electronic voting machines is that the same company that manufactures the hardware also manufactures the software and with copyright protection, the manufacturer does not have to provide the source code for their systems. There is no way for anyone outside of this company to know exactly what the program is doing to your vote. This is the scary part, especially when you have politicians like Chuck Hagel who have a vested interest in the companies that make the voting machines.

The best way around this is to have a non-partisan board control the source code for the programming of the machines. This non-partisan panel would consist of professionals from the technology community: programmers, database analysts, and network engineers. This non-partisan panel, made up entirely from technology professionals in the private sector would exclude any employees of government contractors, hardware manufacturers (such as Diebold or Intel), and software or operating system manufacturers (such as Diebold or Microsoft). Their responsibility would be to develop the programs and standards for electronic voting. Everything from the programs to the hardware requirements to developing a secure database to hold the ballots could be developed by a panel such as this. To make sure that this process is entirely fair, an oversight committee should review and decisions made by the panel. This would be the fairest method to implement for voting machines nationwide. So you say that the manufacturers of voting machines won’t go for it? Well, they’re going to have to if they want to sell their systems. There should be no exceptions if we truly want a fair election. Besides, I have worked in technology long enough to know that if someone wants your business, they need to fit your criteria and electronic voting should not be an exception.

Security is always an issue with any computer equipment. The Department of Defense and the NSA both have security standards for computer systems and there is no reason why our voting equipment should not be covered by the same standards. These standards dictated by these government agencies cover access control and auditing.

But this is only the start. Electronic ballots can make voting simple and fair for all. I see a time in the future where voting can be done from the comfort of your own home. With the growth of the Internet and better security controls, there should be no reason why someone won’t be able to register to vote online and get a secure connection to a voting website where they would log in using an I.D. and password. We still have a ways to go, but it is a possibility in the near future.

There are a lot of questions and concerns that can come out of any solution but the bottom line is that all Americans need to demand a free and fair election. We need to be assured that our voice is heard and the right people are representing us – in every level of government.

Of course, this is my opinion. From discussions with other people in technology, I have found that there is a big difference of opinion in how a system like this can be implemented and keep fair and accurate election results. I would like to see everyone’s comments on this.

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