Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Calibrated Touch Screen Election

In three days the voters of the United States of America will have the opportunity to exercise their franchise in the mid-term elections. After six years of Bush and a congress that was little more than the Executive Branch's bobble-head dolls, Americans have a chance to start shoving their government back onto a course which returns them to global acceptance.

They may be able to slow the train wreck.

That, of course, depends on the ability of each voter to have a choice properly recorded and tabulated. Irregularities have already been mentioned and, truth be known, they are minor when compared to what else can go on in elections anywhere.

If there is one issue which stands out in the electoral process this time out, it is the use of electronic voting equipment.

90 percent of polls for the US mid-term elections will be equipped with new, high-tech, computer-based voting systems. After the fiasco of the 2000 Presidential elections and the indeterminate results in Florida the US federal government spent over $3 billion to fund county election boards with new equipment to replace punch cards, lever systems and paper ballots.

The 2004 election in Ohio saw more than a few "irregularities" but the use of electronic voting machines played heavily in causing line-ups, confusing voters and outwardly shifting votes by the thousands to the Republicans.

Diebold has taken most of the heat for botched computerized voting. Part of that goes to the fact that Diebold's chairman until 2005 was Wally O'Dell, a major Republican fundraiser and one of Bush's "pioneers". He also promised to "deliver Ohio" to Bush before the 2004 election. That certainly gets the conspiracy theorists wound up and even if it's only coincidence, it would be enough to cause a beat-cop to look deeper.

Diebold though, had other problems. A major manufacturer of automated teller machines, the company had almost nothing to do with the election business until 2000. It was the rush to position the company that produced a shoddy product and a completely faulty system.

They are not alone. The company which produces a majority of the machines is ES&S, maker of the i-Votronic. That particular device shares, among other faults, a common problem with the Diebold TSx - neither one provides a paper backup and voters cannot see the result of their vote.

If there is one thing that has raised an alarm it is the fact that the companies that manufacture these machines simply don't seem to be able to fathom the security issues surrounding their devices. Almost all equipment is easy to hack, touch screens are faulty and software is sorely lacking. Computerworld has put together a comprehensive list of the e-voting arrangements in every US state including a breakdown of which equipment has been deployed, any problems known and past difficulties with both the machine vendors and the machines themselves. It's a massive piece of work.

The question is, given the past problems with direct-recording electronic (DRE) equipment, the fact that security is far below sufficient levels, that machines can be easily hacked, that results can be altered and that the software is proprietary and belongs to the vendor - not the election board, does anybody believe that somebody would use those vulnerabilities to rig an election?

The answer is, YES. And, given the political roots of some of the vendors, they aren't terribly subtle about it. Even if they are above-board, they fail to provide an appearance of being so and bring suspicion upon themselves.

Maryland Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. decided he didn't trust the Diebold TSx voting machines to be used for the 2006 elections. Strangely, he approved the purchase and use of those machines just a few years ago. Erlich set about organizing a campaign to get Maryland voters to stay away from the polls and exercise their franchise by Absentee Ballot.

The requests for Absentee Ballots in the state of Maryland is now over 170,000; more than three times higher than the number requested four years ago and more than 10 percent of the expected vote turnout.

The problem is that the state Elections Board, although in possession of 1 million Absentee Ballots cannot deal with the flood of requests and have said they may not be able to deal with the backlog. They have stated that they may not be able to get ballots out before the election.

One could ask, why Erlich decided to push electors to paper ballots, particularly since he approved the electronic equipment for the vote. It could be that the publicity surrounding Diebold and the equipment they supply is sufficiently negative to have given Erlich doubt about his previous decision. It could also be that something else, whatever that may be, is bothering him. In any case, his plan is failing and stands to leave a large block of voters who followed his advice, out of the election, ballotless.

DRE voting, even if the security and integrity of the equipment, vendors and operators were not in question, creates other problems. These are not the manual systems of the past. Many voters will never have seen this equipment. Nor will have most of the poll workers.

Poll workers are the backbone of any electoral event. On election day they are the ones who manage the process, resolve voter issues, enforce regulations, oversee ballot distribution and assist voters with the actual physical procedure by explaining it fully and understanding the equipment.

Except that most have never seen it before. Virtually all of the equipment is 21st Century technology. The average age of a poll worker in the US is 72 years old.

The generation recruited to perform duties as poll workers is the one which is most civic minded and has the most available time to commit to the task. They are also the generation with the least exposure to computers and high-tech systems and the generation least likely to understand the operation of such systems, especially when something goes wrong. Retirees.

It is a recipe for chaos.

193,000 polling places in a US national election requires around 2 million poll workers. So far, nationwide, there is a manning shortfall of around 500,000. Given the complexities of new voter registration systems and new DRE voting, no one can afford to make a mistake. With a critical shortage of workers avoiding mistakes may be impossible.

Electronic voting has become such an issue that vendors are now putting "voter training" videos and information on websites. San Mateo County is using the eSlate machine, produced by Hart InterCivic which, as opposed to a touch-screen, has a more linear display, a wheel to move the highlighter and a button to make selections. It also has a verifiable paper copy of the vote which the elector confirms before finalizing her/his vote. The voter training video is 6 minutes long.

We'll know in the next few days how it all goes. After the fiasco in Florida of 2000 and the corrupted vote in Ohio of 2004, the US cannot afford a major scandal surrounding the 2006 vote. One large event which disenfranchises any segment of the US electoral population will bring justifiable cries of corruption and election tampering. If the DRE equipment of AS&S, Diebold, Sequoia, Hart and others performs in anything less than a generally error-free manner, fingers will be pointed and, beginning at a low mumble and rising to terrorizing scream will be one word - "Rigged".

There is a lot of pressure on a lot of people during this election. It used to be on the American voter. Now it's on the people making sure the American voters get their say.

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