Electronic Voting: On the Button

In Glenn Reynolds’ TCS Daily column on electronic voting:

Because you can’t tell what’s going on inside of the box, voters can’t be sure that their votes are recorded, or counted, accurately. And if they can’t be sure of that, their faith in the whole electoral system is in danger — and with it, their faith in our system of government

I’ve written about this problem before — and more than once — but the issue of trustworthiness in voting and vote-counting is really important, and I still think that it’s not getting enough attention…

The system must not merely be fair and reliable, it must be seen as fair and reliable by all reasonable people. Kooks and conspiracists will always be, well, kooky and conspiratorial. But the system needs to be trustworthy enough, and obviously so, that only the kooks and conspiracists, who are beyond reason, will seriously worry about its trustworthiness. [emphasis Murdoc’s]

This is exactly what Murdoc has been saying all along. Although my prediction of electoral apocalypse in 2004 turned out to be wrong (thankfully) even though the exact conditions that I said would set if off came to be, the long-term implications of this abomination are still very real.

I wrote in May of 2004:

The problem with electronic voting, especially electronic voting without a paper trail, is not that it’s insecure. I imagine, after some work, it can be made pretty tight. The problem is that we will always suspect that it’s insecure. No patches, no service packs, no little paper receipt will ever change our distrust of the machines.

And I followed that quote up in July of that year with:

No matter how ironclad the security, no matter how thorough the auditing, no matter how virtuous the oversight, there will always be a nagging doubt in everyone’s mind. (Forget the fact that we aren’t likely to reach “ironclad”, “thorough”, or “virtuous” in this age of the world.)

The problem is not the insecurity or instability of the electronic voting systems. That can be (and, to a great extent, probably will be) overcome. The problem is the distrust and the doubt. And not just in the US but around the world.

Remember Saddam Hussein’s election victories with 100% of the vote? We already knew, of course, that those elections were a sham. But did the declaration of a 100% sweep make the claims more or less believable? In my mind, it simply underscored the fact that the whole thing was a joke. It de-legitimized Saddam’s regime even more than it already had been. No small task, that.

Unfortunately, I don’t know exactly what we can do about it. Refusing to vote seems irresponsible. What can be done?

Note: I address this issue with a bit of trepidation because outcry against electronic voting is often seen as a Democrat/Liberal tactic designed to unfairly undermine legitimate elections. This means that by appearing to side with them, I could actually do more harm than good. At least in the short term. (In this way it is not unlike my claims that the situation in Iraq is a civil war. The biggest reason to not call it such seems to be that doing so could strengthen the political position of those opposed to it. I will be addressing this shortly.)

I’m not making any particular criticisms of current electronic voting machines (except for the lack of a paper receipt in many cases) and I’m not making any claims that one side or the other is actually trying to steal an election using electronic voting machines.

What I am doing is saying that the whole concept of black box voting is B-A-D for American democracy and for the legitimacy of the US government.

Finally, from later in July of 2004:

I’m worried about this. Not specifically because I expect electronic cheating. I’m worried because we will all always be worried about electronic cheating. Because claims that the other side committed electronic cheating will always carry weight. Because distrust of government plus distrust of electronic devices equals overwhelming expectation of electronic cheating.

I just don’t see any bright side. I don’t see any benefit. I don’t see any reason to attempt to commit national suicide.

National suicide? Isn’t that a bit alarmist?’, you may ask.

‘Boy. I sure hope so…’ I’ll answer.

And go read the whole TCS article.

UPDATE: Oh, and I forgot to point out this horrific Halloween cartoon yesterday. (via WoC)

Plus: Voting Machines – The 8th Deadly Sin


  1. A commenter elsewhere (Dean’s World, I think) had a great idea. You vote with a machine, it prints you out a little slip of paper which has a random number on it. You take that home with you. In real time, on the internet, how everybody votes is available for anyone to examine. Except because it’s anonymous, all you can see is the random number and how they voted. So you can check how your own vote was lodged, but nobody else can, because they don’t know your random number. I think that would go a long way to providing confidence in the system.

  2. I’ve only voted in Boston and Louisiana, but in both places you flip a switch for each person you want to vote for, then pull a big handle. I’ve got no idea what’s going on the other side of the machine, but it’s never made me question the system… That said, I’m all for electronic voting booths to print a paper backup (not able to be tied to an individual voter for obvious reasons) and free national voter ID cards. These two actions would go a long way towards improving the skeptic’s confidence in the system.