A few years back, anything that started with "e-" or ended with ".com" was automatically deemed to be good, no questions asked. Thankfully, those days ended with the dot-com bust. Otherwise, e-voting would receive a free ride, without any scrutiny.
There is an old story--I don't know if it's true--about an engineer who showed his boss the answer to a complex problem. When the boss found out that the engineer worked it out by hand, he told the engineer, "I can't accept this. It didn't come from the computer." So the engineer went back and wrote a program that did nothing but print out the answer that he had derived manually. The boss then wholeheartedly embraced the result because "it came from the computer."
I fear that the same sort of thinking is driving the acquisition of e-voting systems in some jurisdictions. Readers of this publication are mostly techies, so I don't need to tell you that it is the easiest thing in the world to make a computer spit out anything that you want it to spit out. Depending on the language, all it takes is a statement like "print 'Believe me, this is true'; " Unless the recipients of the printout are card-carrying skeptics, like me, or they can read the code that produced it, they are likely to accept the result because, "the computer said that it is so."
I know that 99.9% of all programmers are fine, upstanding citizens. Heck, I used to be one. But, it's that 0.1% who are not-so-fine, not-so-upstanding programmers that worry me. What if they are the ones who program and test the voting systems? It's all well and good if they throw the election to the candidate that I support, but I would be exceptionally upset if they rig it for someone else.
(Please don't head for your keyboards. Given some of the email that I have received in response to past columns, I feel that I must make it clear that I am joking. I intensely believe that democracy is magnificent and election fraud is incredibly evil, but if the latter is absolutely unavoidable, it is better if it's for my favorite candidate. There I go again. Just kidding. Please don't flame me.)
It's not just fraud that concerns me. I was a programmer for close to 10 years. I'm sure that one or two small bugs crawled into the many thousands of lines of code that I wrote, although they were probably put there by a malevolent programmer who was jealous of my superior skills and out to get me. At least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. The point is that, despite the strictest of quality controls, complex software inevitably has bugs. There are a few major computer companies with such poor reputations for software quality that, if they were responsible for developing the voting systems, I would be the first one out in the streets protesting the results. (I won't name the companies because they have several million times more dollars available to sue me than I have to defend myself against their suits.)
I am not opposed to computers being used to help record and count the vote, but I think it's a huge mistake to employ those touch screen systems, which do not produce a paper record that the voter can verify and that election officials can count manually should the veracity of the result be contested. Fortunately, as a July 2004 article ("Weapons of Mass Election: e-Voting in the Courts") by Thomas Stockwell in MC Mag Online pointed out, the courts have begun to rule against this type of system. Sanity may prevail.
Obviously, as Florida made so evident in the 2000 presidential election, not all forms of paper-backed vote counting systems produce indisputable results. Personally, I would love to go back to the days when I had no idea that Chad had any meaning other than the name of an African country. It is one of my greatest wishes to never again hear the terms "hanging chad," "dimpled chad," and "pregnant chad." (By the way, if those pregnant chads were intended for a family values candidate, I certainly hope that they were married chads or at least in a loving, committed relationship.) I am old enough to have used keypunch machines, and I had no idea that the punched out pieces were called chads. Even my spellchecker doesn't like the word unless I capitalize it.
What I see as ideal is the sort of system that was used in the last few municipal elections here. We were handed a paper ballot with an open bubble beside each name. We filled in the bubble next to the candidate that we wanted to vote for and placed the ballot face down into a folder. When we took the folder to the election official, he or she slid the ballot out (still upside down so that the vote would remain private) and into an optical reader. If the machine couldn't read the ballot or if someone voted for two people for one position, the machine spat out the ballot and the elector could correct the mistake. Otherwise, the ballot was automatically sent into a container in the machine. If necessary, the paper ballots could be removed and counted manually. That's a system that I can trust. Call me an old fogey, but a system that records my vote only as an electronic bit is not.
Let me conclude by reiterating that I am a staunch supporter of democracy. So, if you are a citizen of a country holding an election soon, please remember to vote early and often, but only if I agree with your choice.