Friday, October 20, 2006

Ah...Those Voting Machines

With the election coming up in less than three weeks, we still haven't solved the various security issues with the new electronic voting machines. Fears of hacking, vote manipulation, loss of votes, and outright fraud still have not been put to rest. It seems that at least once a week a new horror story emerges. In today's Washington Post yet another article describes yet another glitch.

The FBI is investigating the possible theft of software developed by the nation's leading maker of electronic voting equipment, said a former Maryland legislator who this week received three computer disks that apparently contain key portions of programs created by Diebold Election Systems.

Cheryl C. Kagan, a former Democratic delegate who has long questioned the security of electronic voting systems, said the disks were delivered anonymously to her office in Olney on Tuesday and that the FBI contacted her yesterday. The package contained an unsigned letter critical of Maryland State Board of Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone that said the disks were "right from SBE" and had been "accidentally picked up."

The disks themselves were not actually Diebold disk, they were from a third party contractor used to test the program, but they did contain parts of programs used by Diebold, some of which were still in service in various districts. Whoever had the disks certainly had an opportunity to get into those parts of the program and to design ways to hack further into the program.

Many Americans have lost all confidence in this new voting technology, and are perfectly willing to throw the whole system out and go back to the good old fashioned paper and pencil (or punch card, or whatever) system because at least there was some control over the ballots.

Although I am a Luddite in many respects, this isn't one of them. I think electronic voting machines can work, and can work well, but only if somebody kicks Diebold and any other contractors around until they come up with a secure system which can be backed up. And there are other reasons to work with this new technology. One of them was expressed compellingly in a letter to the editor printed by the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

I speak with slurred speech because of a disability, I cannot use a pencil to mark a ballot, but I work, live and participate in our community. My opinion counts. That's why I vote. Now, for the first time in my decade of voting, I will be able to vote privately and independently.

New machines, which feature touch screens, headphones with sound and other features to help people with a variety of disabilities, are expected to be at all Minnesota polling sites.

I work as a counselor at Opportunity Partners, a nonprofit organization that helps people with developmental disabilities and other special needs become more independent. We work hard to remove barriers so our clients can have a job, a nice place to live, hobbies and friends.

The advent of the AutoMARK voting machine has removed a barrier for me and many other people who live with disabilities. Recently, another barrier -- this time, a legal one -- was removed for people with developmental disabilities. In the past, people who were not their own guardians were not allowed to vote. Today, thanks to a change in state law, people with developmental disabilities can participate in an election just like anyone else unless their right to vote has been specifically revoked by a court order because of the severity of their disability.

Think of it: being able to vote privately and independently for the first time because technology has helped overcome a disability. Surely a country that can put together the Hubble Telescope can figure out a way to secure some voting machines so that all citizens can exercise the right to a secret ballot.

In 2005, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Boxer, and other Senators sponsored a bill that was take care of some of these problems. Key to the bill was the requirement of a printed receipt which showed the votes cast by the voter which had to be retained by the election site until the election was fully certified. Any challenges would require those receipts to make sure they tallied with the machine's figures.

It's too late for this November's elections, but we need to urge the next Congress to put this issue high on the agenda.


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