Thursday, October 30, 2008

Driving Down The Ole' Punch-Card Trail

Maryland and Virginia are switching back to paper ballots. (see 2 States Plan to Ditch Electronic Machines, Part of a Rapid National Reversal)

I've talked about this before in a different context. We're about 4-5 days out now from the 2008 elections. We have all of this technology surrounding all kinds of important infrastructure -- and yet when it comes to voting we seem to lose all sense of the gravity, complexity and competency needed to make for transparent, trustworthy results.

Sad to say, but as a rabid technologist I must once again say that it's time to have the U.N. monitor our election process. Oh, and toss the electronic voting machines until an open, secure and verifiable framework can be established to right this situation.

The reasons for this are many:

  • The people running the election booths are simply not technologists in their day to day lives (on average) and the process by definition isn't a day to day process. It would be different if this were something done every day by people who understood all of the moving parts.
  • Given the above scenario, it's not all that hard to argue that if there is a flaw in the technology, it wouldn't be all that hard to imagine someone with nebulous intention getting into the system and skewing things -- it wouldn't be all that hard for them to get away with it, given their audience.
  • The technology is flawed and opaque -- it needs to be verifiable and transparent. Having proprietary vendors making something as important as voting machines is completely unacceptable.
  • The process is one of the most important processes we (as Americans participating as democratic citizens) undertake.
  • We've had to many dubious failures in recent history -- if we don't clean this act up people are going to stop believing in the process and the government in general. This is already happening to a great extent -- but the damage, I would wager, is reversible.
It might be something ludicrous, looking at Maryland and Virginia as examples -- one of my co-workers laughed at it, for example -- but a small bit of research will more than open your eyes. I'm not a gloom and doom kind of guy -- I am, however, very willing to look at a flawed system and suggest improvements. Oh, and I'm fairly pragmatic. Punch cards work, they're hard to reverse and they represent a paper trail (visions of me jamming my old WATFIV and WATFOR Fortran programs through a card reader run through my mind -- ahhhh, the terrible old days of IBM mainframe computing and JCL!).

We, as a budding Democracy of 200+ years (yes, that's sarcasm) have to be better than this.

Maryland, Virginia -- kudos for stepping out there for all the right reasons.

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