Very thoughtful article by James Fallows about the voting machine technology used in the US presidential election. He starts from the point that all computer systems have hidden bugs in them when they are first released, and these are only detected and ironed out through relentless testing by coders and, later, users. Here’s the nub of it:
“On the available evidence, I don’t believe that voting-machine irregularities, or other problems on Election Day, determined who would be the next president. The apparent margins for President Bush were too large, in Ohio and nationwide. But if the race had been any closer, we could not have said for sure that the machines hadn’t made the difference. That is because many electronic systems violate the two basic rules of trustworthy computing.
By definition, they have barely been exposed to real-world testing. The kind of thorough workout that Visa’s or Google’s systems receive every hour happens for voting machines on only a few special days a year. By commercial standards, the systems are necessarily still in “beta version” – theoretically debugged, but not yet vetted by extensive, unpredictable experience – when voters show up to choose a president.
Four years ago, about one-eighth of all votes for president were cast electronically. This year, nearly a third were. How the system would handle that large increase in scale could not have been tested until the presidency was at stake. Worse, most of the electronic systems are not accountable. When I voted this year, I fed my paper ballot through an optical scanner and into a storage box. In a recount, those ballots could have been pulled out and run through the scanner again. If I had used the touch screen, I would have had no tangible evidence that the vote counted or was recountable.
Is that a problem because the chief executive of Diebold, the largest maker of such systems, is a prominent Republican partisan? No. It’s a problem because it defies the check-and-balance logic built into every other electronic transaction.”