The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY - otsego county news, delaware county news, oneonta news, oneonta sports

November 16, 2007

Tech, GP: Sometimes, low-tech solutions best


Well, another Election Day has come and gone. We voted with our old lever-type machines, and I haven't heard of any significant troubles with them, or of any disputed results.

Imagine that.

They worked.

Again.

The all-knowing federal government, however, has filed suit against our state to force us to buy new voting machines. Quickly.

It's not as if our state is completely against new voting technology. We just want to get it right. New York has come up with a set of standards that new technology must meet. New York's standards are high, and none of the currently offered devices have been certified as meeting them.

Yet, the feds want to force us to buy voting devices which are currently available, have failed numerous times in practice, and have been shown repeatedly to be hackable and insecure.

What can I say? Simple logic tells you that something is wrong with this picture.

I'm sure that back in 2002 when the Help America Vote Act was passed, the intentions were good. There were legitimate problems with election technology.

But the government took the wrong approach. As I said in a column a couple years ago, the election process is a much too important part of our society to just throw money at the situation and expect for-profit companies to fix the problem.

The motivation for these companies to make profit creates a big problem. Each of the companies want to keep the technology private, so that they can make money at the expense of the other companies. It's classic business competition.

There's nothing wrong with business competition. It's just that it doesn't belong in this particular issue.

Voting is a unique part of our government. It is not something that we should farm out to business interests so that companies can profit from it.

Voters need to trust the voting process, or that process is less than worthless, it's dangerous. That trust is not going to happen when votes are tallied in secret, which is what happens when you have machines that run on secret code doing it.

I can see two vastly different ways to have a trustworthy voting process. We should use one or the other.

The first one is ancient: use ink on paper, and count them by hand.

The paper ballot has proven itself for hundreds of years. There's nothing wrong with doing it this way, except that it's more work for humans and is slower. If there is an argument, you just count the ballots again. And it's probably less costly in the long run than using computer technology.

The second way would be to have trustworthy high-tech machines to count the votes for you. This is what the government envisioned, I'm sure.

But, as I said two years ago, the devil is in the details.

To have machines that people will trust, the hardware and software must be transparent. That is, it has to be proven to have no bugs, or ways to manipulate the results. The way you do this is to let everyone see it, let experts examine everything, and make changes until everyone is satisfied with the product. This is essential in forming the element of trust.

I'll let you in on a secret. This will never happen if these devices are made by companies competing to make a profit from it.

So, aside from campaign contributions from companies that make the devices, what's the big deal?

Take the production of these machines and let the government do it. Let all the parts and software be open for inspection. After all, it would be researched and generated by public tax dollars, so why not show all the details to anyone who wanted to see?

Is this such a radical idea? I don't think so. Do you?

Since I'm talking about ``radical'' ideas, I'm going to bring up another one.

Instead of Election Day, let's have Election Week.

That's right, keep the polls open for a whole week, including the weekend. If you want to have a high rate of participation in the election process, which is generally the idea, give people more of a chance to vote. Many people just can't make it on one particular day. A lot of people work two jobs to make ends meet. Keep the polls open for a whole week. There's no real reason not to, except for cost, and I think many would think it's a small price to pay for better government.

Let me further radicalize things. Tally and report the result every day during that week.

That would certainly get out the vote. If people who don't vote early see that the result is not going their way, they would make their way to the polls to let themselves be part of the count.

It might make it harder for political party strategists, but it would certainly make the voice of the people more able to be heard, and that's what's really supposed to count.

And another thing (I'm on a roll here, folks), how come a two-bit computer jockey who thinks about this stuff in his spare time can figure this out, when the people running the country apparently can't?

Remember that the next time you go into the voting booth and make your choice. It's still up to you to choose wisely.

Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by e-mail at

techgp@dailystarmail.com.