• United States



In Touch with Murphy’s Law

Sep 01, 20043 mins
Data and Information Security

The state of Florida has apparently bought into the fantasy that touch-screen voting will be a suitably reliable alternative to hanging chads in the forthcoming presidential election

A few months ago I wrote about the nearly perfect performance of complex, highly advanced technologies in the gripping, race-against-time television series 24.

My point was how insanely implausible the show’s record of gizmo infallibility really is. Anyone who lives in reality knows that Murphy’s Law afflicts technology as often as it does anythingor anyoneelse.

But the state of Florida has apparently bought into the fantasy that touch-screen voting will be a suitably reliable alternative to hanging chads in the forthcoming presidential election. Miami-Dade County piloted the technology in a gubernatorial primary election in 2002. According to a New York Times story in late July, system crashes eradicated electronic records of that pilot, making the vote impossible to audit. To date, the inventors of the voting systems and the jurisdictions now eager to adopt them have resisted calls for paper backupwithout which opportunities for either mischief or mischance abound.

It is not surprising that Floridathe nexus of controversy in the last presidential go-round over unreliable voting systemswould be looking for a better way. What is surprising is that its officials don’t seem to be demanding ironclad auditability of these new systems, or at least indicating a clear grasp of everything that can go wrong.

New technologies are often greeted skeptically. The automated teller machine is a great example. It took more than a decade after the first ATMs appeared before large percentages of banking customers were finally persuaded to use them with confidence. For many, there was a fundamental mistrust of computerized processes and the reliability of the underlying networks. When it came to their money, people were cautious and slow to change. Ultimately, banks did everything they could to provide confidence-bolstering evidence (paper receipts, for example) that ATM systems deserved as much trust as live tellers.

There is plenty of evidence suggesting that electronic voting systems are unready for widespread adoption. The eradication of backup data in the 2002 Florida election is alarming enough. But the Times story also noted other problems. A study of the results of the March 2004 presidential primary, in which electronic systems were used in many Florida counties, showed that “voters in counties using touch-screen machines were six times as likely to record no vote as were voters in counties using optical-scan machines, which read markings on paper ballots”meaning that people would leave a polling place believing they had cast votes, which in fact the computer had failed to record. On top of all this, as columnist Paul Krugman has detailed elsewhere in the Times, there’s that pesky security problemdigital voting is demonstrably not yet tamper-proof.

Folks can be as funny about their votes as they are about their money. Mess with either and you risk a heap of trouble. Given the astounding array of confidence-shaking problems that plagued the Florida ballots in 2000, wouldn’t it be wiser for election officials to wait until the touch-screen systems are really out of beta before they once again risk the integrity of the vote? More than half of Florida’s 9.3 million voters will be using touch-screen systems in November. As one source in the Times put it, unless that changes, “…Florida is headed toward being the next Florida.”