To vote, press 1. To have your vote ignored, please hold.

There’s a long article in the New York Times magazine (today) on voting machines. Here it is. For me, the key paragraph is this:

In fact, the first serious critics of the machines — beginning 10 years ago — were computer scientists. One might expect computer scientists to be fans of computer-based vote-counting devices, but it turns out that the more you know about computers, the more likely you are to be terrified that they’re running elections.

While some of the criticism of the ill-fated e-voting machines in Ireland was naturally motivated by a chance to have a go at the Government (one of my favourite sports, of course, so I’m not claiming pure innocence, no way), one of the most significant things was how many computer scientists, tech industry people, academics, etc were prepared to be citizens first rather than tech-cheerleaders. I’m sure that many could have been tempted to play down problems, especially when the default setting is to argue how the new technology will not just solve all problems but make mighty fine coffee too, but the research and work done by people like these will, I think, be an important part in the history of technological development in Ireland when it’s eventually written.

The magazine article covers the familiar topics of source code, paper verification and hacking, and also has an important discussion of outsourcing:

This has created an environment, critics maintain, in which the people who make and sell machines are now central to running elections. Elections officials simply do not know enough about how the machines work to maintain or fix them. When a machine crashes or behaves erratically on Election Day, many county elections officials must rely on the vendors — accepting their assurances that the problem is fixed and, crucially, that no votes were altered.

In essence, elections now face a similar outsourcing issue to that seen in the Iraq war, where the government has ceded so many core military responsibilities to firms like Halliburton and Blackwater that Washington can no longer fire the contractor. Vendors do not merely sell machines to elections departments. In many cases, they are also paid to train poll workers, design ballots and repair broken machines, for years on end.

Democracy in action.

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One thought on “To vote, press 1. To have your vote ignored, please hold.

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