Monday, September 20, 2004

Voting Machines

Four years ago, just after I came to this country, I was treated to a real spectacle: the American presidential election. The election was almost dead-even, with just the state of Florida as the tie-breaker. Of all the places you could use for a tie-breaker, it had to be Florida, with their screwy butterfly-ballots, punch-voting machines, and half the population of the state being senior-citizens with very little patience for this junk technology. What was the result? About three weeks of unbearable news about "hanging chads", "dimpled chads", "pregnant chads", and pictures of an elections officer holding up a ballot and squinting at it so hard it looked like his eyeball was about to pop out of its socket. Even today, while Americans have accepted that George Bush is president, many still question whether he legitimately won the election four years ago. Unfortunately, the way things are going, it looks like we may be in for a repeat performance in November.

In Canada even today, elections are still done with paper ballots. The rules are simple: you get a ballot with an empty circle beside each candidate's name and a pencil. You go behind a little cardboard privacy shield, mark an X in the circle beside the candidate you want, and go back to deposit it in the ballot box. If you don't mark any circle, if you mark more than one circle, or even if the pencil line touches the outside of the circle, your ballot is "spoiled" and won't be counted. People know this, so if they accidentally spoil a ballot, they ask for another one. At the end of the election, the returning officers for each polling station sit down and hand-count all the ballots. All of this may sound like a lot of work, but it gets the job done: in a few hours you have your election results and you never hear about fiascos like what happened in Florida four years ago.

I am an IT director, and a principle I like to use is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." It is pointless to deploy technology for technology's sake - it is not sufficient for a technology to be "cool" or "slick": the technology you deploy must produce a return on investment. If the technology increases the complexity of a process and does not produce any appreciable gains, it is not worth deploying.

Unfortuntately, the people running elections down here do not seem to have grasped this concept. Several years ago, some misguided public officials started introducing mechanical voting machines operated by levers as well as mechanical punch-card mechanisms like the ones that caused the problems in Florida. You would think after the fiasco four years ago that these people would have learned their lesson. No, instead they reasoned that since the technology they were using was imperfect, they should spend even more money to deploy technologies that are even less perfect and less proven than what they used four years ago.

Many states, including Florida, are deploying electronic voting machines that will allow voters to cast their ballots using touch-screens. While these may be "cool" and "slick", there are a number of fundamental flaws with this concept:

1. Paper backup: a well designed system would have a printer attached that would print a line for each vote cast, allowing for a manual recount in the event of a system malfunction, or where a recount is called due to a close race. Sadly, most voting machines do not have printers attached.

2. Communications security: a key weakness of any system like this is its ability to communicate its results in a secure fashion. Presumably, since many votes will be cast in temporary locations such as school gyms, most voting machine results will be transmitted back to their tabulating computers via dial-up modem lines or over the Internet. Unfortunately, both of these communication methods are susceptible to break-ins. The main concern would be a hacker's ability to engage in a little electronic "ballot box stuffing" by dialing into the same phone number used by the voting machines and uploading a few thousand bogus votes for his favorite candidate.

In short, the American public is spending a lot of money on technology that is not proven, and is deploying this technology for the extremely critical function of choosing the next government. Not a wise choice, in my opinion. In my role as an IT director, if I were to deploy such unproven technology for such a critical business process in my company, I would probably be fired. Unfortunately, the public officials and companies involved in this fiasco have not met this fate, and seem to have become even more egregious with their spending on this white elephant.

What is needed here in the United States is a return to the basics: ballot boxes, pencils, paper ballots, and a bunch of people to count the ballots when the voting's done. While this may not be "cool" or "slick", it does get the job done, and would produce a truly incontestable election result that the American public can feel confident in.