Diebold SERVEs us right

I’ve been asked a question by SXSW’s Bits & Bytes Blog, which I answered in the way they asked me not to (in detail). The question was four sentences long and they want only three or four sentences in response — as the question is full of assumptions that I think distract from the real question at hand, I went into detail.

This is posted in the spirit of open democratic debate, not a concern that the folks at SWSX are not shooting straight. Check out the blog, they have a group of people answering interesting questions twice a week.

Question: Many questions have surfaced in the last few days regarding Diebold, the company whose touch-screen voting machines are becoming more and more prevalent across the United States. As noted in a New York Times column by Paul Krugman (http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/02/opinion/02KRUG.html), “What we do know about Diebold does not inspire confidence. The details are technical, but they add up to a picture of a company that was, at the very least, extremely sloppy about security, and may have been trying to cover up product defects.” Does the influx of technology and the increased automation of the voting process in this country make you feel more or less secure about our democracy?

My long answer: There are two issues with regards Diebold’s electronic voting systems that are undemocratic that have little to do with whether Diebold is the “right” company to provide electronic voting systems in U.S. elections. (Yes, “right” is a double entendre in Diebold’s case.) I don’t think the company is any more sloppy than any other technology company — all code is buggy. It is the wrong reason for the very undemocratic nature of its product and the terms it is offering the American people.

Problem 1: The system is proprietary and closed, which makes it impossible to for the public to assess the fairness of its vote counts. Since we have many other devices that measure things public and private — everything from the Federal Elections Commission’s disclosure process for campaign contributions to the volume of gasoline delivered at the pump and the weight of trucks — and these systems of measure are subject to regular verification of accuracy by public employees, it is bizarre that Diebold claims no one should be able to see inside its black box to verify the accuracy of votes recorded.

Problem 2: Besides the voting technology itself, there is no way to verify the vote, as there is no physical record. Even with a mechanical voting machine there is a physical record that, as long as the machine has been checked for its accuracy, represents the state of the machine when the voter pulled the lever to vote. With Diebold’s system, the vote could be hacked even before the voter indicates they are prepared to enter their vote. A poorly written or hacked Diebold ballot could indicate the voter has selected one candidate while actually setting voter’s ballot for another candidate.

The response to these issues is not to abandon the notion of electronic voting, which could be a powerful tool. The answer is to make the system completely open so that voters would have access to technology developed to record a vote for their personal records. There’s no reason we couldn’t have a smart card that keeps our voting records for use if we believe an election has been stolen that could be swiped to actually record the vote (voting would be like going to the ATM, only you’d swipe your card at the end of the transaction to confirm your selections).

Finally, Diebold should not be allowed to provide closed technology because of its founder and CEO’s avowed support for George W. Bush. As a country, we have always avoided the opportunity for corruption when possible. Using a technology which could be corrupted and cannot be verified because of the majority owner’s private interests, when that same majority owner has public preferences that are an obvious conflict with the preferences of the majority of voters in the previous election, is irrational and criminal.

While we’re at it, Diebold isn’t the only problem. The Department of Defense SERVE Project, an electronic voting system for use by the armed forces is being offered to voters in many states, as well. This means that an agency of the executive branch, the very branch of government we are voting on in a presidential election, will have control of the recording of votes. That’s insanely conflicted. I wrote about this in July, but it has been widely ignored by the press. Yet, here in my home state, Washington, the county accessor is offering me the opportunity to vote through SERVE, which she describes as “exciting.” Scary is more like it.

Author: Mitch Ratcliffe

Mitch Ratcliffe is a veteran entrepreneur, journalist and business model hacker. He operates this site, which is a collection of the blogs he's published over the years, as well as an archive of his professional publishing record. As always, this is a work in progress. Such is life.