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Election 2004

Touch screen opponents are great at ignoring facts

Published July 25, 2004

What should a reasonable person conclude about touch screen voting machines? Sure, there are some safeguards it would be nice to add. But most of the worry out there is loony tunes stuff.

The big picture:

(1) No touch screen machine has been shown to have been rigged or to have delivered an inaccurate vote total. They work fine.

(2) Claims of "flaws" or "errors" in various incidents around the country almost always involve human elements, such as poll workers not getting the things turned on.

(3) A conspiracy to rig the machines in a national election is ridiculously unlikely if not impossible. A plot to rig the machines in a state or local election is even less plausible.

Critics cry out: "There ought to be a paper trail, so voters can check their ballot!"

Remember, the voter already must confirm a summary of his/her ballot on the screen. But let's say we did create a running print out, displayed under glass, and kept it for posterity. This has been a paper-jam disaster in the few places that have tried it.

On top of that, an election has to be close to trigger a recount. We think that hackers are smart enough to rig the machines, but too dumb to rig them enough?

Skeptics insist: "There ought to be a physical copy of my individual vote somewhere." Yet millions of Americans have done without it for decades, satisfied to pull a little mechanical lever in a voting booth.

Next comes the claim that touch screens are unreliable in a Star Trek, amok-computer fashion - "The computer ate my vote!" The routine "undervote," when voters cast an empty ballot, is being recast in a sinister light.

The most-cited example of a suspicious undervote comes from a Florida House special election earlier this year, in which more than 100 blank votes were recorded. It was the only race on the ballot.

Entirely ignored was that it was an unusual "open" primary, in which everyone could vote, even though only Republicans were on the ballot. Some Democrats no doubt saw only Republicans listed and just punched "finished."

Touch screen machines eliminate a much bigger problem than undervotes - "overvotes," in which ballots are thrown out because the voter marked two different candidates in the same race. Now it can't happen. Democrats should be delighted - without overvotes in 2000, President Al Gore would be seeking re-election today.

Now, for the machine-rigging stuff.

To have a national conspiracy, here is what you have to believe: That not one, but several, multimillion-dollar corporations whose existence depends entirely on customer trust have decided to risk criminal indictment, prison sentences, civil lawsuits, bankruptcy and disgrace - and have somehow gotten their key hired help to agree.

Either that, or a single, evildoing programmer has sneaked past everybody. The companies have left it all in this one guy's hands, you see: "Excuse me, Mr. Luthor, would you please write this code that nobody will ever double-check, okay?"

How about local evildoers? Maybe our hacker is an evil local elections worker, with inside knowledge. He has even less ability to rig the machine than the manufacturer. And the scheme would have to elude an army of official observers.

Listen: The machines start out at zero on Election Day. They are locked at the end of voting. The total is matched against the number of physical signatures in that precinct's register. Each machine has a unique electronic code used to report its total. You can't leave any machines out of the total. You can't add new ones. You can't jiggle the totals. It's all printed and auditable.

There's plenty of real stuff to worry about. There's this clumsy felon list by the Bush administration. There are important new rules concerning absentee ballots this year that may prove huge in November. I agree with the critics that source code and audit methods about touch screens should be public record.

But the crazy tone of most of this stuff represents everything wrong with our know-nothing, Internet society. Worse, it represents a deliberate attempt to delegitimize our democracy for partisan gain. To those churning so hard to undermine faith in the election: Don't you care that you're hurting your own guy in case he wins?

[Last modified July 28, 2004, 14:47:20]

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