Packet Rat: The Rat emotes about e-votes

Michael J. Bechetti

The Rat usually votes by absentee ballot. It causes less uproar than a six-foot anthropomorphic rodent trying to enter the polls.

This year, however, he had to vote in person to check out the state's new electronic machines.
'What do you want to bet we watch in wonder as our votes get dropped into the bit bucket and lost forever?' he asked Mrs. Rat as they entered the gym of their local elementary school.

That actually happened in Dallas County, Texas, where machines failed to record an unknown number of votes. In another recent county election, the machines vaporized about 40,000 votes.

The cyberrodent counts himself a technophile, but he's also a realist. He's never seen a computer that couldn't fail.

'When you drop a vote through a memory leak, there's nothing left to recount,' he explained to a wary poll worker who was looking for the Rat's voter registration card without making eye contact.

Florida, Georgia and Maryland all converted to electronic voting this year. The chadless technology was a bit much for some'especially in Broward County, Fla., which lost 103,222 votes for a day after the election.

'I guess they can't blame [former secretary of state] Katherine Harris this time,' the Rat mused. Harris' predecessor, Sandra Mortham, worked as a lobbyist for the company that supplied the state's new electronic voting machines.

In Georgia, there were reports of the wrong candidates' names being displayed, of voting machines lighting up the wrong choice after voters pushed a button, and of dancing back and forth between Democrat and Republican choices.

'Those must be rebuilt video poker machines,' the whiskered one snickered.

At the Rat's own precinct, there was a half-hour line to get seats to wait while the poll workers struggled with bar-coded voter cards and complex two-button interfaces to keep the votes rolling.

When voters finally got a machine, it took about 15 minutes to figure out how to change their minds on a ballot choice without looking like total idiots by asking for help.

Most computer voting errors of the past few years have come from reading paper ballots by computer. The errors are usually in the software'at least according to the hardware guys.

In a Kansas primary this summer, one election got reversed after it was discovered that the software had switched the two candidates' vote totals.

But the fun's far from over. There's plenty of latitude for new and amusing foul-ups with electronic ballots. Some machines might have failed to record votes, whereas others whose memories had not been flushed this year showed more votes than there were voters.

'So long as they count mine,' seethed Mrs. Rat as she finally got to punch in her choices.

The Packet Rat once managed networks but now spends his time ferreting out bad packets in cyberspace. E-mail him at rat@postnewsweektech.com.

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