10 November 2003

Machine Politics in the Digital Age

New York Times
Melanie Warner
November 9, 2003


Touch-screen machines from Diebold, called AccuVotes, do not have such a "voter verified" paper trail. ES&S and Sequoia are working on prototypes for machines with printers. Diebold's machines are like A.T.M.'s, in that voters touch their selection and hit "enter" to record their votes onto memory cards inside each terminal. After voting has ended, the memory cards are inserted into a Diebold server at each precinct. The results are tabulated and sent by modem, or the data disks are sent to a central office.

Rebecca Mercuri, a computer scientist and president of the consulting firm Notable Software, who has been studying election systems for 14 years, says the trouble with this system is that it is secretive. It prohibits anyone from knowing whether the data coming out of the terminals represents what voters actually selected. If someone were to challenge election results, the data in memory cards and the software running the voting terminals could be examined only by Diebold representatives.

MS. MERCURI ran up against this last year, when she served as a consultant in a contested city council election in Boca Raton, Fla. Her request to look at the software inside the city's machines, made by Sequoia, to see if there were any bugs or malfunctions, was denied by a judge on the grounds that the technology was protected by trade-secret clauses. Sequoia, ES&S and Diebold routinely include such clauses in their contracts.

"These companies are basically saying 'trust us,' " Ms. Mercuri said. "Why should anybody trust them? That's not the way democracy is supposed to work."

Representative Rush D. Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, is leading an effort to make computerized voting more transparent. His bill, introduced this year, would require that computerized voting systems produce a voter-verified paper ballot and that the software code be publicly available.

The bill, in the House Administration Committee, has 60 co-sponsors, all Democrats.

"Someone said to me the other day, 'We've had these electronic voting machines for several years now and we've never had a problem.' And I said, 'How do you know?' and he couldn't answer that," Representative Holt said. "The job of verification shouldn't belong to the company; it should belong to the voter."

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