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Home > Politics

MicroVote, Diebold: no, no, you carry on

by Alan Connor

13 November 2003

We spoke earlier about shonky software being used in elections. Well, Diebold have to pony up for jiggering about with a Californian voting system.

But, at the same time, another company, MicroVote General Corp., is being used over in Indiana. The Boone County municipal election showed that 140,000 votes had been cast: quite a few for a small consitituency with fairly-low voter registration. In fact, the turnout would have had to have been about 736%, as Boone Cty has only 19,000 registered voters.

As it happened, the turnout was about one voter for every ten residents, rather than seven voters for every one.

MicroVote have said that the wrong numbers were those beamed onto a wall for bystanders, and didn't exist anywhere else. Moreover, say MicroVote, this was deliberate: the system spews out obviously-inaccurate numbers as a way of reminding election staff that they haven't reset an important part of the machine.

There's been a small amount of press about this, none of which seems to remember that re-initialisation has been a problem for MicroVote before. In Montgomery County, PA, in 1995, the software started spewing out inaccurate numbers when new voter machines were added to the system, and led to three-hour queues for voters. [ report | rebuttal ]

So, we'll see. But assuming the worst thing that has happened this time is that the results of one election were delayed, the possible repercussions are no picnic. Type "MicroVote" into Google and look around. Webloggers scoffing "computers sure are great"; newspapers remembering Florida; a pressure group querying electronic voting.

If "e-voting" doesn't inspire confidence in the electorate, it is a failure. There's certainly trouble afoot. Here's an idea.

We know that companies like Diebold and MicroVote run into problems, and that designing this kind of system is no picnic. But look at Diebold's response to people finding out that they have problems: they bring in the lawyers to stop anyone quoting their employees' worries. Likewise, when there's been a problem during an actual election, the company has present a good case to the public, rather than laying bare what went wrong, otherwise they stand to lose valuable contracts to their rivals.

If, however, the technology were developed by a non-profit research group who made all their code and ideas entirely visible to the rest of the world, including their problems, you would find armies of geeks pitching in, tweaking and improving the code, and, crucially, looking for problems before they happen.

After all, this is the way the Apache server was developed, and it works well enough to be the server of choice for two-thirds of the web. And if something goes wrong, or someone asks for a recount, anyone who cares to can observe and understand, rather than a private company trudging through some kludged-together code and working out how to save face.

For transparency, confidence - oh yes, and accuracy - there must be no "e-voting industry". It feels a bit lefty to be suggesting that the process of elections should be done by governments rather than corporations, but surely, surely the state has a role to play here above shelling out big $ to shysters?

It's like that episode of Blackadder II


Update by Sean Walsh: Gore Vidal has just been interviewed by the L.A. Weekly:

Speaking of elections, is George W. Bush going to be re-elected next year?

No. At least if there is a fair election, an election that is not electronic. That would be dangerous. We donít want an election without a paper trail. The makers of the voting machines say no one can look inside of them, because they would reveal trade secrets. What secrets? Isnít their job to count votes? Or do they get secret messages from Mars? Is the cure for cancer inside the machines? I mean, come on. And all three owners of the companies who make these machines are donors to the Bush administration. Is this not corruption?

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