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Electronic voting 2012: Here we go again

Molly Wood May 11, 2012

Elections come and go and many issues change, but one seems to remain: electronic voting. Two years ago, four years ago, eight years ago — the story’s been about the same: the machines don’t seem ready for primetime, but we’re using them anyway.

This week, the official verdict came back on some electronic vote-reading machines in the South Bronx that seemed a little fishy in the last congressional election, 2010. Larry Norden is with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and says sometimes the voting machine “was essentially overheating and because it was overheating, it was reading a lot of phantom votes — a vote that the voter didn’t actually cast, but that the machine saw.” The upshot is that in some districts in the Bronx, it turns out more than a third of votes weren’t counted.

Things could get really scary in a state that’s gone all electronic, like South Carolina. University of South Carolina computer scientist Duncan Buell is worried for 2012: “I’m not sure there’s any real change from four years ago to now.”

Seriously? What’s taking so long?

“First of all, software is very hard — unfortunately it’s one of the immutable laws of the universe. It’s not a trivial thing to make sure the software is written and works properly and works under all different configurations you have for local elections. One of the other problems we have is that there hasn’t been an update to standards. So we, for example, will vote in the fall on software that has not changed even the daylight savings time from 2007.”

Buell just co-wrote a report on how that software performed last time, in 2010. And it ain’t pretty.

“If you say, ‘what possible things could go wrong,’ virtually every single one of those did go wrong somewhere in South Carolina. Machines that had cast-votes on them didn’t get counted because people didn’t follow the rules. There were machines that would not ‘close’ and the only way to collect those votes was to call (the manufacturer) in Omaha…and (their) people said ‘do this, do this, do this’ and magically votes appeared in the count.”

One bright spot is that following Buell’s investigations, South Carolina passed a law requiring the private makers of the machines to allow their data to be collected and analyzed.

Even if progress is slow, Larry Norden says the push toward e-voting continues for good reason. “Electronic machines are a lot more accessible to a much broader range of voters: elderly voters, people with disabilities and blind people… And (there are) massive efficiency gains in terms of how quickly and efficiently we can get the results.”


Starting this week, the anti-piracy warning at the beginning of your Blu-Ray movie is becoming a double-feature: Not just 10 but 20 glorious silent seconds of not one but two separate, unskippable, unfast-forwardable screens telling you that even though you lawfully bought this movie, stealing is bad, mister!

And along with the FBI, Homeland Security now gets its badge on the screen, implying that if you do steal this movie… the terrorists win.

Actually, it reflects the fact that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement often plays a much bigger role than the FBI these days in busting pirates. They naturally want to share in the credit… and the blame, apparently, for doubling the amount of mandatory, awkward silence before every movie.

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