Sunday, January 6, 2008

Outsourcing Elections

I’ve made no bones about how I feel about electronic touch-screen voting. I don’t trust it, I don’t want it, and I don’t understand why we have to have it.

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine has an excellent, albeit alarming. article about the problems with touch screen voting. It’s long, but it’s a thorough and comprehensive overview of the issue.

By now, most of us on the blogopshere have heard about the undercounts and switched votes, vulnerability to hacking and the election-night crashes. Etcetera. Etcetera. But about halfway through this article, author Clive Thompson gets to the really scary part of this issue:
This has created an environment, critics maintain, in which the people who make and sell machines are now central to running elections. Elections officials simply do not know enough about how the machines work to maintain or fix them. When a machine crashes or behaves erratically on Election Day, many county elections officials must rely on the vendors — accepting their assurances that the problem is fixed and, crucially, that no votes were altered.

In essence, elections now face a similar outsourcing issue to that seen in the Iraq war, where the government has ceded so many core military responsibilities to firms like Halliburton and Blackwater that Washington can no longer fire the contractor. Vendors do not merely sell machines to elections departments. In many cases, they are also paid to train poll workers, design ballots and repair broken machines, for years on end.

“This is a crazy world,” complained Ion Sancho, the elections supervisor of Leon County in Florida. “The process is so under control by the vendor. The primary source of information comes only from the vendor, and the vendor has a conflict of interest in telling you the truth. The vendor isn’t going to tell me that his buggy software is why I can’t get the right time on my audit logs.”

There you have it. The vendor has a conflict of interest in telling you the truth. This is why I want the “free hand of the market” out of my elections. Touch-screen voting is complicated, it’s high-tech and requires computer literacy to fix bugs and crashed machines. It requires an expertise beyond the ken of most poll workers, who are senior citizens. But even the tech-savvy can’t handle the problems that have been experienced with this equipment. The manufacturer has to fix these problems. But voting machine manufacturers have a political agenda, just like any business owner will.

Why are we ceding control of our elections to the companies that make the voting machines? This is no small thing. People have died for the right to vote in this country. And we’re just giving it away to some corporation? Why?

One of my conservative readers, responding to an earlier post on this issue, observed, “I'd just as soon everybody mark their choices on serialized paper ballots and count them by hand, even if we have to wait a week to find out who won.” I actually agree. I don’t think it will take that long, but I’d rather it be late, and accurate vs. fast and wrong. It’s just too important.