Election risks: Mixing the cosmic with the comic

- by Paul Murphy -

The use of electronic voting in this year's US elections has the makings of the greatest IT related disaster yet. Barring a miracle this is a done deal, a disaster unfolding as we watch.

The problem, unfortunately, is that it's too late for alternative technologies to come in while a number of judicial decisions holding that the older methods tended to disenfranchise the illiterate make it hard, if not impossible, for most states and counties to simply roll back the clock to the pre-electronic way of voting.

It's not too early, however, to start anticipating the normal response to utter disaster: bitterly black humor.

Herewith, therefore, a top five list: in this case, of things you'll be sick and tired of hearing about on late shows well before by next year's congressional hearings on how computers stole the election of 2004 even get started.

Most of the claims will, of course, come from the losers. Number five, therefore introduces to common use a word previously restricted to political science majors wailing about lost causes. "Delegitimization" is a legitimate word: the New York Times, in the person of Juan Forero, used it in an August 17th story about the delegitimization of the Venezuelan recall election.

Fundamentally the losers don't like the outcome, have now claimed that the voting machines malfunctioned or were manipulated, and want the election delegitimized. Stay tuned, this word's a resume builder for CNN talking heads.

The interesting thing is that the voting machines printed ballots which were then deposited to enable hand counting as a check on the machine totals. That's very much the right thing to do, but of course the losers now claim that the cheat was in the machines -meaning that the ballots counted and then printed for deposit didn't match the votes entered.

Some voters did claim this during the event but that's normal for two reasons. First voter remorse is common in all elections and always a problem for process designers. More importantly, a call for volunteers willing to testify on camera that their votes were misrepresented is the kind of offer that always brings out the loonies.

It's been less of an issue in this case than it might have been because the 16 percent margin allowed the victors to dismiss the complaints as immaterial. Had that margin been quite small, however, the losers would have seemed more credible and the people running the election would have been forced to prove to the satisfaction of the losers that no voting machine had been programmed to cheat. Even if the losers were rational about it, this wouldn't be possible since the machines used in that election were capable of running independent programs and conspiracy theorists usually have both better imaginations and fewer constraints than do auditors and jurists.

Number four on the list is an entire tirade rejoicing in the title "How They Could Steal the Election This Time" by Ronnie Dugger. it's not that he (she?) is wrong about what's wrong with the voting machines, it's that the article presents the whole thing as a Republican conspiracy to steal another presidential election. Here's a snippet:

The companies consult obsolete pro-company and completely voluntary standards promulgated by the Federal Election Commission [appointed by Bush] and get paid by the very companies whose equipment is being tested. The three private companies, speciously called Independent Testing Authorities, together constitute a Potemkin village to falsely assure the states and the voters of the security of the systems.

In its way this is bitterly funny stuff, but unfortunately way too many people take it seriously. Thus some Democrats in Congress have actually asked for UN supervision of an American Election while Kerry promised the NAACP that he'll have teams of lawyers ready to file multiple lawsuits everywhere he loses.

The tragedy is that real problems with the voting technologies empower the conspiracy theorists. This guy is a loony tune, but trusting election results to Microsoft Access or machines with embedded NT is utterly irresponsible.

I'm going to make up number three, because I can't find anyone from Dade County who admits to having actually said the word "Backups?" with a question mark and the appropriate interogative lilt at the end.

Here's how Michael Hardy described this one in an August 2/04 story on fcw.com:

In this case, electronic machines recorded fewer votes in the election than the number of voters who had signed in at polling locations, according to a survey of 31 voting precincts. But when a citizens' group, the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition, requested electronic ballot image data that the county was supposed to have stored, county officials found that system crashes had apparently wiped out the data.

But July 30, the data turned up on a CD that had been tucked away in a conference room near the election supervisor's office, said Seth Kaplan, executive assistant to the supervisor of elections for the county.

The good news is that they bought a tape drive for the servers right after all this became public. The bad news is that the servers didn't have CD burners either, leaving some to wonder where the miraculously resurrected data could have come from. This one burns it coming and going: if the ballots on the CD match the published numbers, there will be no way to refute those who claim it was created for that purpose; and if the data doesn't match there'll be no way to prove the legitimacy of the vote result.

The number two spot, and the Oscar for weasel wording, goes to the Congressional Research Service:

.. at least some current DREs [electronic voting machines] clearly exhibit security vulnerabilities. Those vulnerabilities pose potential ... risks to the integrity of elections.

Gee guys, ya think?

And the number one source of deja vu among comics previewing the hearings? A masterpiece:

"le rayon cosmique qui a touché la mémoire d'une des urnes électroniques de Schaerbeek, ce rayon cosmique permettra de sensibiliser des députés encore acquis au vote électronique"

Okay, that's in French, language of nuanced sensitivities and all that, but you know that's a good thing because it's way more credible that way, particularly if you don't grok the language.

Here's the story: an electronic voting machine error in a May, 2003, election in Belgium produced just over 4,100 more votes for the winner then there were eligible voters. The official review reduced this to exactly 4,096 extra votes and was therefore able to conclude that nothing and nobody was at fault. Really, the machines had worked flawlessly, the code had been perfect, the processes fully correct, and all involved upright and honorable. True, the result was wrong, but you see God did that through the agency of a cosmic ray perfectly timed and directed to smite the memory cell holding the 13th bit of the total for the microsecond it was stored prior to printing.

As I said, way more credible in French.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 20-year veteran of the IT consulting industry.