You can't trust technology, but somehow we always do.
Many objects technological have become background noise — literally or figuratively. You don't think about it unless it breaks — there's no dial tone, or the heat doesn't come up, or the engine explodes. We expect things to work. Most of the time they do.
It's not a matter of how old something is. Powered flight's been around for 100 years and I'm still sure the wings are going to come off the MD-88 I'm on.
But the modern Internet is fewer than 10 years old and I always expect my e-mail to arrive in seconds. If you use a spreadsheet and put "=2+2" in a box, you expect to see a "4" appear, George Orwell notwithstanding. But there's a danger to treating any gizmo like an unfailing "black box." There are always human beings involved, and human beings make mistakes. Or worse.
Last month, we — well, some of us — voted. Depending on where you live, you may have stuck a piece of paper in box, or thrown a little mechanical lever, or punched a hole in a card. Or pushed a button — beep! John Smith gets your vote for school board president.
Or does he?
Electronic voting machines, it turns out, may or may not be counting your votes properly, if at all.
Detractors — and there are more and more of them — call it "black box voting." You assume the machine's software is counting the votes correctly, but there's no way to know. But the government must have tested these machines before entrusting our very democracy with them, right?
Maybe. Maybe not.
With black box voting systems, the machine records each vote onto its internal memory via software. And software can be hacked. Coding it to switch every 50th vote from Smith to Jones would be trivial.
Can't happen, you say? There's that trust in technology I mentioned. It can happen. Someone broke into the computers of Diebold, one of the largest makers of electronic voting machines, and downloaded hundreds of staff memos regarding the company's voting systems.
They're a scary read — software bugs, faked demos to governments, discussions of how easy it is to break into the machines' databases that store the votes. (The memos have since spread far and wide onilne. A search on "Diebold memos" will find them.)
OK, you say, so the software had bugs. That doesn't mean there was any malice involved, or that anything actually went wrong.
Would that it were the end of it. But it's not. First, there was Diebold's CEO, one Walden O'Dell, who told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in Augustthat he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President next year." Coming from the head of a voting machine company, that's scary.
OK, you say, that was a stupid thing to say. But only a conspiracy theorist would believe it's more than hyperbole from an overzealous exec. There's no indication the machines don't work.
Unless you're in, say, Fairfax, Va., where the county's new e-voting machines (made by Advanced Voting Solutions, not Diebold) apparently subtracted about one out of every hundred votes for Rita Thompson, Republican candidate for school board. She lost by fewer than 1,700 votes.
Or in Boone County, Ind., where the software showed 144,000 votes cast. Trouble was, there are only about 19,000 registered voters.
Or Alameda, Kern, or Plumas counties in California — which do use Diebold machines — where the e-voting systems reported, somehow, that every single voter cast a ballot for the recall election; that is, no one abstained. In every other county, between one-half and 9% of voters skipped the recall question, but the Diebold machines in these three counties showed 100% participation. That means either the machines discarded thousands of votes (those who abstained) or cast a vote for them. Which do you think is better?
A true cynic (good for you!) might say that we also trust the folks who make and use the mechanical voting systems. But mechanical systems offer two things an e-voting machine doesn't. First there's the clear feedback to the voter — a piece of paper or a resounding 'click' — that tells you your vote's been cast. I bet the folks in Fairfax would have appreciated that. Second, it's harder to "hack" a mechanical voting system. Anyone can look inside see how it works: Here are the paper ballots, here is where the tape is punched. A lot of people have sufficient mechanical aptitude to verify the workings. Not so with software.
Further, it's impossible to get such a system to shift its votes just a little bit. You could make one cast every vote for Jones or for Smith, but that would be obvious. Tricking it into switching, say, one out of every 50 Smith votes into a Jones vote would be darned near impossible.
There have been calls — loud calls, in some cases — for "voter-verifiable paper ballots" from black-box machines: something that says "I voted for Smith." If you vote for Smith but your receipt says you voted for Jones (or that you didn't vote at all), you can complain and have something to back you up.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is working to have this kind of machine be mandatory. But for now it's not. So the next time your expensive piece of software crashes — or does something unexpected — think about how you'll be casting your ballot in 2004.
Andrew Kantor is a technology writer, pundit, and know-it-all living in Columbus, Ohio; he's also a former editor for PC Magazine and Internet World. Read more of his work at kantor.com.
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