27 April 2014

“We should at least get votes back on paper and get people counting them by hand.”



As innocuous as these words may sound, they make me feel like I’m on I-35 in Minneapolis, headed toward the Mississippi bridge. Ankle-deep in a presidential election year, I find myself without faith in the infrastructure of American civilization.



This is not what I’d like to be writing about. Our nation’s soul is bleeding, its future up for grabs. The candidates jockey for a mandate — our mandate — and they’ll define it as narrowly as possible unless we define it for them. How thoroughly and courageously do we repudiate the Cheney-Bush legacy? How resolutely do we move toward peace and global oneness? That’s what 2008 is all about, right?



Why, then, must I divert my attention from matters such as this and ponder . . . memory cards and molded plastic deflectors? Ah, democracy! We can’t simply leave it to the voting machine vendors any more than we can leave it to the politicians. The O-rings and gusset plates of democracy are poised to fail in every election; every vote does not count. The media and most government officials are still in denial about this, still dazzled by glitzy, electronic voting technology or maybe just trapped in their billion-dollar commitment to it. Besides, when has technology ever gone backwards?



But the call for paper ballots and hand counting — however jarring and quaint it may sound in the 21st century — comes most urgently not from Luddites or flat-Earthers but the technophiles and self-proclaimed geeks who understand computers most intimately, and know their vulnerabilities.



Bruce O’Dell, quoted above, is a security specialist who works with large-scale computer systems in the banking, insurance, bond-trading and related industries, and as a citizen has been one of those people tirelessly sounding the alarm about the dangers of electronic voting, a mission that has included, among much else, addressing legislative subcommittees in Texas and New Hampshire on voting machines.



For him, electronic voting is “this fabulous ‘solution’ in search of a problem. I just don’t know what the problem is. Speed of tabulation appears to be the only benefit” — affecting, most noticeably, the ability of television networks to deliver winners and losers to the American public within an eyeblink of the polls’ closing. This is terrific, I guess, to the extent that democracy is a spectator sport.



To the extent that it’s something else — e.g., a yoking of power to the common good, a serious and private deliberation on national direction, a precise ascertainment of the consent of the governed — electronic voting contributes nothing but uncertainty. And, of course, the possibility of widespread fraud.



For ATMs and all other electronic equipment, O’Dell points out, the foundation of our trust in them is proof of identification: PIN numbers and other means of user verification. “Precisely none of that occurs with voting.” It can’t. We vote in secret. A vote, once cast, can never be linked to the one who cast it.



Because of this, the voter should be the one who puts his or her ballot in the ballot box — a ritualistic, indeed, sacred act of citizenship — with the assurance that the box’s chain of custody will never be compromised: that it will never be out of official sight, that its contents will be emptied and counted with full public scrutiny.



With electronic voting — touchscreen (DRE) voting machines and optical-scan machines that are electronically tabulated — this is all lost. In the case of DREs, we do not handle or even see our own ballots. We surrender the most important functions of the election process to the programmers and service technicians of private companies, and to the vagaries of humidity and other factors that could compromise the accuracy of individual machines. And, oh yeah, these systems are humongously expensive.



“Why,” asks O’Dell, with anger and wonder that reverberates from sea to shining sea, “are we using machines?”



Yet our surrender to technology seems to have been accompanied by a remarkable surrender of all skepticism toward human behavior. While security concerns are paramount in our financial and just about all other dealings (try talking about gun control if you want to provoke a spasm of invective about human trustworthiness), we maintain a remarkable sense of denial that hunger for power could ever lead to breaches of democratic integrity. What are you, a conspiracy theorist?



No, but I’m from Chicago and I cut my teeth as a reporter back in the waning days of the Daley (Senior) Machine, when precinct captains didn’t need no conspiracy to know they needed to deliver their precinct, or else, and would do what it took. The quest for political power is raw and all too often dirty. That basic truth hasn’t changed.



If you are appalled by the insecurity of electronic voting, you have lots of options for staying informed and getting involved. (Two Web sites to help you keep abreast as the primaries grind on are bradblog.com and markcrispinmiller.blogspot.com.) A movement of ordinary citizens to save our democratic birthright is growing.



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Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is an editor at Tribune Media Services and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at bkoehler@tribune.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.
© 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.