Magazine article The Humanist

Follow Nonexistent the Paper Trail: The Technological Advances in Electronic Voting Machines Rise Accountability Questions about Today's Democratic Process

Magazine article The Humanist

Follow Nonexistent the Paper Trail: The Technological Advances in Electronic Voting Machines Rise Accountability Questions about Today's Democratic Process

Article excerpt

After the U.S. map was fully colored in, polarized between the blue coasts and fringes on the one hand and the vast expanse of red in the middle on the other, after John Kerry gave his concession speech and blue voters started planning mourning parties, it didn't take long for bloggers and pundits to examine tally sheets and find some alarming details. Unlike the 2000 elections, though, it took more than a week for 2004's voting glitches and irregularities to really register on the mainstream media radar. By that time legions of Internet-based writers and theorists were already screaming "voter fraud" and calling for Kerry's "unconcession."

No one wants to look at any more hanging chads, not after the last time. Didn't we replace those silly things? Don't we have more modern and reliable ways of counting votes?

Whatever glitches were found in the 2004 elections, however, they weren't enough to reverse a Democratic defeat. Like it or not, Bush won. But his victory doesn't fix some of the essential problems with electronic voting machines that leave no paper trail or the dubious central tabulator computers that are as open to hacking as any other personal computer. And while the hanging, dimpled, and pregnant chads of 2000 could at least be examined and debated, 2004 gave us something worse: a system whose accountability is decided by its software developers behind the closed doors of corporate offices.

Even if Kerry had waited until every single provisional ballot was counted, the electoral vote would have still tipped the scales in the GOP's favor. Looking at the glitches and irregularities, then, isn't about who resides in the White House until 2008 but about the way elections are conducted in the United States in general: the inner workings of the democratic process. "We had an election on November 2 that fell outside the zone of litigation. That does not mean we had an election that met acceptable standards." said international election attorney Patrick Merloe to the British Guardian. For example:

* In Gahanna, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, an electronic voting machine gave Bush 4,258 votes to Kerry's 260. But the precinct has only 800 voters, and only 365 of them voted Republican. Votes were recorded onto a malfunctioning cartridge.

* In Florida's Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale, some tallies were counting backward. After reaching 32,000, the maximum number of votes that that particular software program could handle, the machine started subtracting votes instead of adding them.

* In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, where Cleveland is located, there appeared to be more votes cast than the number of registered voters in the region.

* A precinct in North Carolina lost 4,500 votes because a computer didn't hold as much data as officials originally thought.

* An Indiana county listed each of its precincts as having 300 voters for a total of 22,200 when in reality there's a total of 79,000.

* A voter in northern California had to cast a provisional ballot because someone else had already voted claiming to be him.

* Then, of course, there's that persistent, pesky issue of spoiled ballots of the hanging chad variety--Ohio, after all, is still predominantly punchcard country.

Exactly one year ago the Humanist ran a story about the unreliability of electronic voting machines, noting that they are programmed with unsecure software and are inauditable because they leave no paper trail. The 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) allocated $3.9 billion to replace punchcard ballots, used widely in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2000 and 2004, with electronic touch-screen machines. But such machines don't provide hardcopy confirmation of voting and their software remains the property of the companies that make them. Diebold Election Systems and Election Systems and Software, two of the most common voting machine manufacturers, both have Republican ties. …

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