Voting increasingly becoming an issue of national importance

    When people talk about shenanigans in the 2000 presidential election, they usually refer to the infamous hanging chads and the subsequent Supreme Court decision. More recently, the California recall election was temporarily halted due to concerns over the reliability of the mechanical punch card system. Media attention has mostly focused on the need to replace the outdated punch card with a more modern electronic voting system, but little has been said about what ought to be a much more important issue ‹ the allegations that the electronic voting systems may actually be even less reliable.

    Thankfully, this is slowly beginning to change as more people become aware of the problems with the new electronic systems. Some of the more prominent news sources that are reporting now include CNN and The New York Times.

    There seems to be no reason why electronic voting systems would be less reliable than mechanical punch card systems, but facts are beginning to surface that suggest the companies in charge of implementing them may have failed to install proper security safeguards in their rush to meet government-mandated deadlines.

    Diebold Election Systems, which has already sold over 33,000 voting machines in the United States, recently tried to prohibit the release of certain information on the Internet. A collection of internal company memos were accidentally left on a public web server and were discovered by someone researching electronic voting systems. Horrified by the contents, the researcher released the memos to the Internet. Since then, Diebold has been sending cease-and-desist letters to the Internet Service Provider of any site hosting the leaked memos, claiming copyright infringement. The plot has thickened as The Electronic Frontier Foundation and Stanford University’s Cyberlaw Clinic recently filed for a temporary restraining order against Diebold’s actions in federal court.

    Regardless of the accuracy of these claims, they do bring up an interesting point: The current generation of electronic voting machines leaves no paper trail. The only records are stored electronically in voting databases. Diebold has repeatedly resisted suggestions to print out receipts of the vote, and said it would be much too costly to install printers and rewrite software in the existing voting machines.

    The question then becomes, exactly how much is democracy worth? What sum of money is large enough to justify machine error putting the wrong president in power? What sum of money is large enough to justify the risk of turning elections into lotteries?

    In the 2000 presidential election, one of the Florida precincts uploaded a memory card from a Diebold voting machine containing negative 16,000 votes for candidate Al Gore. It was the obvious impossibility of having a negative number that prompted the recount. In the next election, if things do not change and punch card machines are replaced with the current electronic voting machines, there will be no possibility for a recount, as only electronic records will be kept.

    In the best-case scenario, we will have some small amount of voter error ‹ how much voters will never know ‹ but maybe the next president will win the election by such a large margin that machine error does not change the result. In a worst-case scenario, hackers could penetrate the machines’ security and change the votes, with no way for us to verify the altered results.

    Luckily, there is hope in sight. A bill, HR 2239, is already being put in front of Congress that would require all voting machines to have a verifiable audit trail. While the bill is sponsored by a Democrat, this is certainly an issue that should have the support of anyone eager for accuracy. It is not about tax cuts or social security or the war in Iraq: It is about making sure that the president who gets into office is the one that got voted in.

    The 2000 presidential election proved that the voting system had grave flaws that needed to be corrected. In California’s recall election, we saw that the problems weren’t entirely solved. While electronic voting booths provide some hope in their ability to make voting easier, there are security risks involved, and ease of use shouldn’t be sacrificed for increased problems with maintaining privacy. It’s clear that it will take a bipartisan effort and perhaps a little more popular outrage before this issue is resolved.

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