Why Voting Machines and ATMs are different - and Why eVoting is Deeply Wrong
7 November 2006 Originally posted to the Grinnell College '76 Alumni discussion list
I'll speak to this issue as a computer scientist with 28 years of engineering experience, and a sizeable portfolio of user interface patents.
The issue is complicated by the need to consider the situated context, in terms of failure modes. Those that say "we can build reliable ATM machines, why can't we build reliable voting machines?" are missing exactly this point, subtly so.
ATM machines - and the credit card industry - suffer from a known actuarial fraud rate. This is generally kept fairly secret, but amounts to a mild tax (reflected in interest rates) on the banking system. HOWEVER, the "error direction" is uncorrelated with general command and control of the monetary system - it is "noise", in an information processing sense. It is acceptable, whereas fraud in voting systems is not spread out in the same way - it results in point failures that swing command and control of the polis.
Hanging chads are "noise". There are more than one kind of noise, in terms of statistics; hanging chads are "white noise". The errors produced by hanging chads are spread out over the entire system in a random way. Additionally, the paper ballots are entirely "in the realm of the senses" - you can look at them, see them, touch them, judge them. And recount them, with a Mark One Eyeball (or a committee of eyeballs, drawn from opposing parties). If the error rate is small, but random (white noise), then that is acceptable in my mind; because it will even out over time, "falsely" awarding close elections to opposite parties in an unbiased manner in terms of statistics. Hanging chads do not have intention.
Moving ballots away from the realm of the senses into electronic form means that a hidden algorithm can intentionally corrupt the votes. An EEPROM memory holding software code can be difficult to trace back to known source. Add to this that Diebold claims the commercial right to hold the actual software proprietary, and you have a nasty situation where the machinery of voting now becomes arcanely obscure, not transparent, and potentially corruptible. And Deibold is known to "service" the machines in the field, sometimes without audit trails or even permission from the voting officials.
If the issue is to make it easy for disabled to vote; fine, make machines that are touch screen etc., - that make marks on paper, that can be then fed into the traditional process, after the voter approves of the marks in front of their own eyes. I distrust even optical scanner evaluators that are software controlled; but they are at least susceptible to recounts based on the actual marks on paper of paper ballots.
Electronic voting can so completely corrupt the system that democracy could be completely lost, in an unrecoverable way, short of a violent overthrow of the government, leaving us with a mere Spectacle where the outward forms are observed, but a permanent power arrangement comes into being.