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Trust But Verify

By Steve Jones,

Electronic Voting MachinesThe election was completed in the US recently and it was a historic event for many reasons. I found that there was a very interesting phenomenon that occurred during this election with so many people choosing to vote in advance of election day. I'm somewhat old fashioned in that I like to mail off my tax payment, I like to go to the store to buy many things, and I like to vote in person on election day. It's a neat experience that I've enjoyed sharing with my kids.

The advance voting took place in large numbers, which was good considering the turnout of voters. Many locations had long lines, people waiting, and issues with the electronic machines. After some of the issues that the United States had in the 2000 election and then subsequent reports of vulnerabilities in the electronic voting machines, many places had gone back to paper ballots with optical scanners.

I'm a technology guy, and I've often looked to integrate and implement more technology in all kinds of places throughout my life. Often I've found that life gets better, and usually more efficient, as we use technology to save time, offer up more features, and increase the possibilities for improvement in our daily tasks, both at work and home. However I'm not sure that the voting process is a place that I want to change the technology.

I haven't had the chance to use one, but I'm not sure that I completely trust the way these machines work. At least not with the current designs I've seen. As much as technology might speed up the process of voting and ensure more accuracy, there's something inherently untrustworthy about having the only record of my choice, a choice that affects the way the US is governed, being consigned to only bits.

I know that bits rule most of my life. Going completely ephemeral in most of my life works well, especially with finances, but in many cases there are two systems involved, both of which maintain some records that can be used to go back and verify what actually took place. With voting machines, and probably other types of machines, there is only one machine, and no real way to verify your choices.

In my mind, the implications of redoing a set of transactions in voting are huge. It might not even be feasible to try and determine what data was lost. Some type of paper record is critical to ensuring that we can validate the transactions at a later date.

Voting is an interesting data issue since it requires a system that handles time constraints, little possibility to redo the work, and very high requirements for accuracy and integrity. Technology can definitely improve things in this area, perhaps offering backups, real time mirroring, and improvements that speed up the process, but I'm not sure that foregoing some type of physical verification, i.e. paper, is something I'll ever trust.

Steve Jones


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