You know it’s election season when…

… the New York Times publishes a huge story on voting machines. To their credit, this is one of the best pieces I’ve seen to date, assuming you accept that these major publications simply refuse to talk about open-audit voting.

Some great lines that mirror what I’ve said in my own talks:

Part of the problem stems from the fact that voting requires a level of precision we demand from virtually no other technology. We demand that the systems behind A.T.M.’s and credit cards be accurate, of course. But if they’re not, we can quickly detect something is wrong: we notice that our balance is off and call the bank, or the bank notices someone in China bought $10,000 worth of clothes and calls us to make sure it’s legitimate. But in an election, the voter must remain anonymous to the government. If a machine crashes and the county worries it has lost some ballots, it cannot go back and ask voters how they voted — because it doesn’t know who they are. It is the need for anonymity that fuels the quest for perfection in voting machines.

Absolutely true. Too bad that paragraph appears only on page 8.

The deep, ongoing consternation over touch-screen machines stems from something new: the unpredictability of computers. Computers do not merely produce errors; they produce errors of unforeseeable magnitude. Will people trust a system when they never know how big or small its next failure will be?
[…]
Yet here’s the curious thing: Almost no credible scientific critics of touch-screen voting say they believe any machines have ever been successfully hacked.
[…]
Those fears still dominate the headlines, but in the real world of those who conduct and observe voting machines, the realistic threat isn’t conspiracy. It’s unreliability, incompetence and sheer error.

Yes, that’s exactly right! The reason a number of voting activists get me very upset is because they keep claiming that elections were actually rigged. In all likelihood, that’s simply not true. The real issue is that a “small” mistake, when you’re dealing with software, can have a very large effect.

Very nice work on this article. Now if only someone could convince Clive Thompson to write about open-audit voting…

One thought on “You know it’s election season when…

  1. I agree with everything you said except for the last statement. While I think it doesn’t really matter whether or not previous elections were rigged (or at least, not as an argument against unauditable voting machines), I think the fact that they could have been rigged (and we’d never know) is extremely relevant. It’s a much more convincing argument, to me, than the fact that small mistakes can have large effects.

    Small mistakes can have large effects even with paper-based, properly audited voting. When the difference between two candidates comes down to 400 votes, the election is basically a coin toss. In this case, I don’t think it really matters who “really” got those votes as long as the errors are unbiased

    The difference between this case and malicious manipulation is that in a close election, instead of the result being decided by a fair coin, it’s weighted in the direction of the more corrupt party (or the one with the better hackers). I doubt this makes a good foundation for a democracy…

    The real problem with unauditable voting machines is that you don’t need a “conspiracy” to change the outcome. A single programmer could conceivably do it. A small, well-funded group could do it easily. Considering the stakes, this isn’t in “tin foil hat” territory.

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