Monday, September 10, 2007

Stuck in the Past

If one agrees with the premise and I think most Americans do, that elections are the foundational bedrock of a democratically elected government, then ensuring that the voting process is fair, practical and as idiot-proof as possible is a function that government must take care to discharge well. However, in American, election administration, particularly in the recording, counting and verifying of votes, is hopeless antiquated. After the debacle in Florida in 2000, there was a effort to modernize voting technology that had not seen an move forward in some 50 years (optical scan machines notwithstanding). True, there have been problems, significant problems with electronic voting machines, but just because there are problems doesn't mean we should give up on efforts to improve the system, but that is exactly what Congress is looking at doing. Tim Ryan writes in today's Washington Post
When early jet aircraft crashed, Congress did not mandate that all planes remain propeller-driven. But this is the kind of reactionary thinking behind two bills that would require that all voting machines used in federal elections produce a voter-verifiable paper record. These bills -- the Ballot Integrity Act (S. 1487), and the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act (H.R. 811) -- are understandable backlashes to the myriad problems encountered in the implementation of electronic voting.

Paperless Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) machines, those where votes are entered into computers and stored only in computer memory banks, have encountered numerous failures and no longer inspire public trust. The response proposed in these Senate and House bills is for all such machines to produce paper receipts that voters can examine to ensure that their votes were correctly cast. The goal -- a double-check of the machine tally -- is worthy. Unfortunately, paper records are no panacea for the shortcomings of machines, and mandating paper removes the incentive for researchers to develop better electronic alternatives.
Out voting systems are multiple generations of technology behind the times in relation to other technology.

Yes, we must have simple, easy to use and easily verifiable systems to make sure our voting is tabulated accurately. However, we can't simply long for a time before computers and before automated tabulation. We cannot revert back to the days of a abacus when a four year old can use a high end computer--it is simply silly.

Ryan points to a couple of optional technologies that are probably ready for testing and I would think hold promise for ensuring the integrity of electronic voting. It would be a shame for Congress to close the door on making our elections better.

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