The past few weeks the mainstream media finally awoke to the single largest threat to democracy facing this country: insecure, corruptible, undependable electronic voting machines.
Since November 1, Newsweek’s Steve Levy has written about security problems with “black box” voting systems, the Washington Post issued an editorial calling for further testing of machines in Maryland and Virginia, and most significantly, Paul Krugman of The New York Times delivered a scathing indictment of electronic voting on December 2.
That these machines invite disaster in the 2004 election is indisputable. None of the three major electronic voting machine manufacturers produce verifiable (and recountable) paper ballots. And none of them has demonstrated that their computer code is dependable or that the machines are secure from the work of vandals, hackers, or corrupt politicians. They consider their source code secret and proprietary, forbidding citizens from testing or commenting on the software.
A comprehensive study by computer scientists at Johns Hopkins University and Rice University showed that the software used by the most suspect company, Diebold, was alarmingly insecure.
So there is no lack of research and controversy about unverifiable electronic voting. The only question is why it took so long for major national publications to pay close attention to these problems. After all, the “blogosphere” has been all over this issue for almost two years.
Three major news hooks inspired this recent flurry of attention: California ordered a statewide review of electronic voting security, Ohio delayed the implementation of electronic voting machines in the first week of December and most importantly, Diebold foolishly sued a bunch of students who were offering Web access to critical memos from the company.
The memos are pretty scathing. They show Diebold employees are concerned with both the security and dependability of their machines. They demonstrate that these machines fail, whether or not humans try to corrupt the system.
The memos are, of course, copyrighted by Diebold. So the company sent “cease-and-desist” letters to Internet Service Providers that hosted sites with the memos. These included sites run by journalist Bev Harris, the leading activist on electronic voting, and sites run by concerned university students all over America.
After being sufficiently embarrassed (and realizing that someone had posted the memos to KaZaa), Diebold opted not to pursue legal action. But the damage had been done. Dozens of critics had their Web sites go dark.
That Diebold deployed the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act to censor critics meant that technology reporters who had long covered the excesses of the new copyright regime now had a reason to look at electronic voting. But why is copyright more important than faith in our electoral system?
Of course, most mainstream news organizations need a “he-said/he-said” clash to justify a story. Blog activism (blogtivism?) rarely generates front-page news, with the Trent Lott-Strom Thurmond scandal being the major exception.
The Democratic Party has been criminally negligent on the issue of voter access and electoral accountability since the stolen election of 2000. Just as no major national party leaders challenged Florida’s expulsion of eligible voters from registration rolls in 2000, none have stood up against these machines, despite their presence in important states such as Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, and Ohio.
In 2002, when two Democrats who seemed to be leading in the polls right up until election day lost statewide races in Georgia – a state infested with unverifiable and insecure Diebold voting machines – no major Democrat raised a fuss. As it turns out, Diebold hurriedly installed new operating systems in those machines just weeks before the election, after the state certification deadline.
Only two Democrats have confronted this issue. Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) has sponsored a bill requiring electronic voting machines to spit out a paper ballot. And Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) has taken a public stand against Diebold. He not only posted the verboten memos on his Web site, he called for a congressional investigation into Diebold’s tactics.
At least Kucinich recognized that Ohio’s future is endangered by Diebold’s attempt to control elections. After all, Diebold CEO Wally O’Dell wrote in a Republican fund-raising letter, “I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.”
It’s important to remember that the debate over voting technology and procedures is not just a 2004 problem. It was an 1876 problem. It was a 1920 problem. It was a 1964 problem before the Voting Rights Act was passed. And it has been a challenge in every election ever held anywhere in the world. It only became visible in 2000 because Florida was close. Chads have been hanging for decades.
But there are two things we take for granted in this country: democracy and technology. We assume that democracy thrives because we keep repeating the mantra. And we assume that all new technology represents progress, that complexity equals precision.
Every voting system includes some people and excludes others. There are costs and corruptions, benefits and biases to every technology we employ. The challenge is to have conversation and debate about the best ways to vote and count votes overtly and honestly, acknowledging that values are embodied in all technologies. Just as no technology is perfect, no technology is unbiased.
The problem with these changes since 2000 is that we Americans often decide that more technology is better, no matter what. We found that paper democracy is messy and slow. So we have put our trust in machines we hope will fix the problems that the previous machines created.
More importantly, we must remember that the United States has seen more stolen, corrupted, or illegitimate elections than it has fair, open, honest ones. American adults of either sex and every ethnicity have only been guaranteed the franchise since 1970. If you throw out the judicial appointment of George W. Bush in 2000, we have only had seven good presidential elections. Our democracy is as fragile as ever, despite our professed belief in its power and stability (For more history of the right to vote, click HERE).
Siva Vaidhyanathan is director of Communication Studies at New York University and author of Coprights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity and The Anarchist in the Library, forthcoming in April 2004.