Wednesday, July 28, 2004

I Agree With the ACLU???

Say it ain’t so! Sadly, however, it is. The topic is Florida’s moronic law that forbids recounts in counties where electronic voting machines are used. What ignorant buffoon came up with that idea?

Before launching into a tirade about electronic voting… a quick disclaimer: I’m not an old fart technophobe! (OK, maybe an old fart, but hopefully the gray imparts some aura of wisdom). I manage the development group of the largest software development company in a city of one million people. In our niche market, we’re the leading software provider in the world. If I’m labeled a technophobe, it’s only because I have a more keen understanding than most of what can go wrong with hardware and software.

Relying on electronic voting machines with no hard-copy backup or a law that says you can’t use it even if you have it, is pure unadulterated political suicideperiod! I’ll take it even a step further. Electronics should be used strictly for vote gathering, with the result individually and immediately recorded on a hard medium (paper), verified by the voter before leaving the polling machine, erased from the electronic medium after the voter confirms the ballot and counted mechanically en masse after polls have closed.

Here’s why for each step:

1.) Vote Gathering. This should be the only step in which electronics play any part. The human to machine interface (GUI to you developers out there) of a properly designed touch screen is infinitely more intelligible to the ignorant masses than the human to machine interface of mechanical voting devices, which was the main reason precipitating the push for electronic voting (remember the Palm Beach ballot design debacle?). In addition, it is far easier and quicker to modify an electronic interface than a mechanical interface for the ever-changing needs of elections.

2.) Record the vote on paper. Computers (or any electronic storage medium) are far too fragile to rely on for storing votes for any length of time. The ideal should be to minimize the time a vote spends on electronic media. In practice, the shortest amount of time is from the vote selection to the recording of that vote on a more permanent media (paper). In addition to fragility, the enormous complexity of computers invites fraud. Any dufus can tell if a paper vote has been altered. It takes an expert to track down electronic fraud and chances are excellent the fraud will never be noticed in the first place. Finally, any voting machine that doesn’t generate a means for recount is in my mind (and should be by law) criminally negligent. Only politicians and lawyers could have possibly come up with this scheme to defraud the American voter.

3.) Voter verifies ballot. When I leave the voting machine, I want assurances that my vote was, or will be tallied. When I hit the Submit button on an electronic touch screen and my vote disappears into the black hole of the bit bucket, I have no assurance whatsoever that my vote was recorded correctly, or even recorded at all. With a paper ballot in my hand, I can walk to the ballot box, drop my ballot in and be relatively confident that my vote will be counted.

4.) Erased from the voting machine. Voting is private. A voting machine should give me the same comfort level as the sleeve over my ballot that someone else won’t review my vote.

5.) Count ballots mechanically. Optical scanning technology is at a sufficient state of maturity to count ballots. As is currently the case, handling of ballots by other than the voter’s hands should be kept to a bare minimum. In the case of close races, ballots can be recounted by hand.

I may be accused of educating the enemy, but consider the ease with which any electronic machine (including voting machines) can be disabled:

Simply slip a fully charged power supply grade capacitor in your pocket. It’s about the size of a cell phone. I’d highly recommend putting your car keys in your other pocket. Discharge the capacitor on any metallic surface of the machine, preferably the ports in the back. Zap!... You might want to use an appropriately sized resistor to minimize the noise of the discharge… or just sneeze loudly at the same time. Result: a practically guaranteed loss of data held within the memory of that machine.

If data is stored on any type of magnetic media (hard disks), hold on to your capacitor from above and add a wire wound metallic bar (a big nail will do) in your other pocket. Now, rather than discharging the capacitor into the machine (the entire case may be plastic), discharge it into your homemade electro-magnet… and wallah!… you have a bargain basement EMP attack. You’ll most likely scramble the disk’s brains and if your pulse is strong enough (doubtful though), you might scramble some electronics too.

Forget the semi-sophisticated approach… pick the thing up and slam it to the ground. You can stomp it once or twice for good measure too. There!... that’s a good five hundred evil republican votes down the drain. Then you limp out and apologize to the 85 year old poll worker that you tripped and fell on the voting machine. Hey… you’re a criminal… what’s a little white lie? If you’re a lawyer (which would make sense in this case), you can also sue for tripping on the improperly designed voting machine legs.

Of course, you’ll want to perform these acts late in the voting day so as many votes as possible are permanently lost. These examples represent highly unsophisticated attacks. The resources of a more determined enemy could be brought to bear in more sophisticated attacks such as defeating the software, or the electronic transmission of votes from precincts to headquarters, or in direct manipulation of vote counts. Don’t think it can happen? Download a few things via Kazaa and see what you think after that.

Forget criminal activity… what about a thunderstorm taking out an entire precinct late in the afternoon? It happened in my house… destroyed every piece of electronics in the entire abode. Can you imagine losing 10,000 votes in the blink of an eye? I can. How about the 110 year old blue haired snowbird from New Joisey that puts her car in drive instead of reverse and plows through the heart of the precinct destroying everything in her path? Yeah... I could see that happening!

Stability and complexity always exist in an inverse relationship. The increased complexity of electronic vote storage, transmission and tabulation only invites instability, whether that be from purposeful maliciousness or simple unplanned natural events. To add to that inherent instability by not providing a backup means of vote tabulation, or worse, to specifically deny it’s use, is simply unacceptable. When it comes to something as important as voting for our leaders, we need to employ a KISS approach. Unfortunately, the KISS philosophy doesn’t seem to be one of our government’s strong suits.

If this law is allowed to stand, old Algore only thought that votes went uncounted in 2000... because in the infamous words of BTO, "You ain't seen nothin' yet!"

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