Cybereye | Votes of no confidence

A snafu with electronic voting systems in the Washington, D.C. primaries is another reason why we need backup systems is we are to have faith in out elections

YOU MIGHT THINK that the job of counting a few thousand votes for a handful of candidates would be fairly straightforward and simple, but you would be wrong. After nearly 2,500 years of experiments in democracy, the task of reliably and accurately counting votes remains disappointingly difficult. And recent experiences in the Washington, D.C., primaries show that throwing our best technology at the problem might only make it worse.

Only about 13 percent of Washington voters turned out for local primaries earlier this month, but optical-scan machines from Sequoia Voting Systems somehow managed to inflate the vote totals in some races by more than 100 percent, making up thousands of write-in votes and adding thousands of votes to the totals of candidates on the ballot. Fortunately, the preliminary results were so far out of line that election officials immediately raised questions and the totals were recalculated.

'It was determined that one defective cartridge caused vote totals to be duplicated into multiple races on the summary report issued by our office,' the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics said the following morning.

The cartridge records the votes the optical scanning equipment counts and is used to compile vote totals.

Some experts questioned whether a problem in a single cartridge could produce those results, and the manufacturer insisted the cartridge was fine. Sequoia speculated that a static discharge or human error might have caused the problem ' or maybe it was a human discharge or static error. Either way, we don't know what happened and only have election officials' word that errors have been corrected.

In the grand scheme of things, the D.C. primary means little to the rest of the country. The district does not have a vote in Congress, and its elections will have minimal effect on national government. But the snafu reminds us that our elections are at the mercy of technology and people who cannot be relied upon. Even well-meaning people and good technology are fallible, and we need as much backup as we can get to have confidence in elections.

Paper ballots probably are too unwieldy to be used alone in large elections, and centuries of experience have shown that they are subject to manipulation. Information technology offers great advantages in convenience and accuracy, if handled properly. However, electronic data is ephemeral and too subject to manipulation to be relied upon alone. The Election Assistance Commission's voluntary guidelines call for an independent, auditable record for voting systems, without specifying the technology to be used. This is a prudent approach; every jurisdiction should have something to fall back on when glitches produce phantom ballots or machines start eating votes.

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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