Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Passion for Democracy

The urge for freedom and self-determination beats strong within the human heart, as recent events in Egypt and Tunisia attest. But democracy is fragile and can fall prey to powerful forces that seek to suppress or undermine it. Those threats can ride in on horseback brandishing whips or they may come in more subtle guises.

Consider, for example, Florida’s 2000 presidential election. Most Americans probably assume that the right to vote includes the right to have one’s vote counted but, as the Supreme Court made abundantly clear, that is not so. An investigation by Dan Rather Reports later suggested that Florida's hanging chads were no mere accident but the product of deliberately faulty manufacturing. But despite the fact that most punch-card voting systems had been reliably trouble-free for many years, Congress rushed headlong into "fixing" the problem with the 2002 passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA).

HAVA included many worthwhile provisions but it also allocated nearly $4 billion to "modernize" states' voting equipment, much of which was spent on electronic voting systems. Maryland was one of the first states to jump on the e-voting bandwagon, signing a contract almost a year before the passage of HAVA that would establish a uniform system of touch-screen voting machines statewide.

Computer security experts warned about the dangers of voting equipment that provides no means for independently checking the accuracy of election results. Dr. Aviel Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University, discovered unprotected files on the Internet containing the "source code" software for the Diebold voting machines deployed in Maryland. He and his students found that the code was so poorly written that it offered hundreds of simple ways to compromise an election. Maryland's General Assembly and then-Governor Ehrlich commissioned two separate studies that corroborated Rubin's findings. Various measures were undertaken to try to safeguard the equipment, but a thorough review several years later by the State of California revealed that many of the most glaring vulnerabilities were never addressed by the manufacturer even after they had been widely exposed in the media.

In 2007 Maryland's General Assembly unanimously passed a law that would require an independent paper record, verified by the voter, of each vote cast. These hand-marked paper ballots, counted by optical scanners just like an SAT test, would serve as the official record of a voter's intent that could be used in the case of a recount or to check the accuracy of the machines. About two-thirds of Americans currently vote on optically-scanned paper ballots, and it is a far less expensive method than the touch-screen voting equipment Maryland now uses, which will have cost us nearly $200 million to buy and operate by the time we have finished repaying the purchase loan.

The new equipment was supposed to be in place by the 2010 elections, but stalling tactics by State Elections Administrator Linda Lamone, a touch-screen voting enthusiast who has famously said that Maryland would get a paper trail "over my dead body," have delayed the transition indefinitely. Meanwhile, other states have abandoned paperless voting in the wake of election-day disasters: North Carolina in 2004, New Mexico by 2006, Florida and some Ohio counties by 2008.

Ms. Lamone asserts that there is no evidence that a vote has ever been lost by Maryland's electronic voting equipment. True, but there is also not a shred of evidence that any votes have not been lost either. That's the problem with unverifiable voting: no evidence.

When NPR host Bob Edwards asked former president Jimmy Carter, who has monitored elections all over the world, if he had ever considered monitoring a U.S. election, Carter replied, “They can’t meet our standards.” Carter explained that while American election procedures are fairly reliable in deciding landslides, they generally are not accurate enough to determine the outcome of very close elections.

So much for the world's role-model of democracy. As Joseph Stalin allegedly pointed out, “Those who vote decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything!”

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