• United States

‘Go away,’ he explained

Aug 04, 20033 mins
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The state of Maryland might have decided that efficiency is more important than democracy. I am quite sure many in the state don’t see it that way, but one must judge the results of actions not just what might have been in the minds of the people who made the decisions.

In December 2001, reacting in part to the Florida election process in the last presidential election, Maryland decided to go with an all-electronic voting system. The system, built by Diebold Election Systems, was touted as the “most robust and flexible system on the market.”

Maryland Secretary of State John Willis touted the system’s “accuracy of capturing voter intent.” He also said the system would “give Marylanders the opportunity and confidence that they now use at the gas pump and the supermarket checkout.”

Just maybe these folks were just a touch overenthusiastic in their praise. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University published a report on the software the Diebold system apparently uses. The report doesn’t paint a pretty picture. The software – an old version, according to Diebold – shows a breathtaking disregard for even the rudiments of computer security. The Johns Hopkins report comes on the heels of a very thoughtful story in the August 2003 issue of the Communications of the ACM titled “Voting and technology: Who gets to count your vote?” It also comes on the heels of more than 900 computing professionals signing a petition asking for a simple function not included in the system Maryland selected.

But this column is not actually about the issues with the particular Diebold system (which Diebold tries to address in a report on its Web site). Nor is it about the inability for voters to have, as the ACM story put it, “strong, affirmative proof that elections are accurate and honest.” This column is about the reactions of people involved in the decision to use the Diebold system.

The best example of the reaction is from the now ex-Maryland Secretary of State Willis, who is reported in The Washington Post to have called the report “technical hysteria.” It is sad, at best, when someone whose past position should demand that he be almost obsessive in the quest for a system the voters could trust, but yet is apparently more concerned with justifying a past decision than for making sure of the system he helped select by calling for a well-justified review by experts.

There are times when the right reaction is, “let’s check that out,” rather than “go away and don’t confuse me with the facts.” Voting is not the same as buying a bag of chips at the grocery store; it is the foundation of democracy and deserves better protection.

Disclaimer: The new regime at Harvard is more interested in looking anew at things than going with old justifications but it has not expressed a view on voting systems.