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Technology and Democracy

From the editor in chief
November 1, 2004

Consider this picture of civil discord. The U.S. elections this November are close. Once again, victory turns on the electoral votes of disputed states like Florida. But officials in the disputed states have purchased a new voting technology that has returned dubious results in previous elections. When all the votes have been counted, they are divided within the margin of statistical error. Election laws mandate recounts. But the new technology has no mechanism for a manual recount. To many Americans, the election seems illegitimate. Technology is blamed.

This year, around 50 million voters will cast their votes using electronic machines. Electronic voting was implemented with the best of intentions. After the Florida recount of 2000, Congress was determined to wean American voters from punch-card voting. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed in October 2002, provided $3.9 billion in federal funds to help states upgrade their election technology. States rushed to buy new devices, including touch-screen machines. And HAVA was, by its own limited lights, a success: the proportion of voters using punch-card machines will be only 14 percent this year, compared to 31 percent in the last election.

So what’s wrong? A lot, actually. Earlier U.S. elections that featured electronic voting do not inspire much confidence. To take just one example: in an election in Indiana in 2003, 5,352 voters produced 144,000 votes. Successive independent studies have found security breaches in the software of the most commonly used machines.

The subject inflames political passions. The most paranoid critics of electronic voting believe that the machines have actually disenfranchised voters: in the August 16 issue of the left-leaning magazine the Nation, Ronnie Dugger wrote that Senator Max Cleland’s loss in the 2002 Georgia election (in which electronic voting machines were widely used) was “highly suspicious.” Dugger insinuated that the electronic machines, some of which had been stolen before the election, had been hacked.

While the fears of the conspiracy-minded are almost certainly misplaced, election officials in California and Ohio were so worried about accuracy and security that they simply halted the rollout of the machines in many counties. This was wise, but it will be a pity if electronic voting is discredited. E-voting in itself makes sense: it is faster, more accurate, and easier than any alternative.

How to fix what’s wrong? One way to make electronic voting seem safer would be to build machines that print receipts of individual ballots. A paper trail would verify a contested election and would do much to soothe the anxieties of critics.

But a paper trail wouldn’t solve everything. The real problem is how HAVA was implemented. Because of our American preference for free-market solutions, our respect for intellectual property, and our impatience with outmoded technologies, we encouraged multiple private companies to hurriedly develop proprietary systems whose software they owned and administered. The results were predictably messy; and the companies, protecting their investments, were predictably secretive.

By contrast, in other countries electronic voting is a public utility, where the machines are owned and maintained by the state. Not coincidentally, electronic voting has been used without incident in countries as various as Australia, Brazil, and India.

At issue is whether Americans should trust digital technologies, or at least these digital technologies, to record our votes. The answer is, not yet, or not with these particular machines, implemented as they were in haste and disorder. Alas, it is far too late to make any changes. Americans must hope for an unambiguous electoral result.

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