Speaking of voting…

A Voter’s Paper Trail

Sharon Machlis looks at the looming electronic voting apocalypse (my word, not hers) from the perspective of customer relations. Software and hardware vendors should be providing the solutions such as paper receipts that end users, also known as the voting public, want. She notes that citizens are footing the bill for this experiment (again, my word, not hers).

Paper isn’t a panacea, as the 2000 Florida vote-counting debacle made painfully clear. But deploying new technology for a mission-critical function while ignoring the wishes of end users is rarely a recipe for success.

She also notes that after an initial wave of skepticism and fear, many Americans now shop online without a second thought.

She has a point, but the rub is that although you and I are providing the funding for this beast, we aren’t making any decisions or writing the checks. Those in positions to do so may possibly have different priorities than you and I. Even if they don’t (and don’t kid yourselves for one moment about that) the possibility of hackers, private or otherwise, is very real.

But, as I wrote in May:

The problem with electronic voting, especially electronic voting without a paper trail, is not that it’s insecure. I imagine, after some work, it can be made pretty tight. The problem is that we will always suspect that it’s insecure. No patches, no service packs, no little paper receipt will ever change our distrust of the machines.

No matter how ironclad the security, no matter how thorough the auditing, no matter how virtuous the oversight, there will always be a nagging doubt in everyone’s mind. (Forget the fact that we aren’t likely to reach “ironclad”, “thorough”, or “virtuous” in this age of the world.)

One very good point in Machlis’ article, however, is her response to those who claim a paper receipt printer would slow or halt the voting process if it malfunctioned or failed.

However, voters should be rightfully skeptical of companies that promise sophisticated hack-proof technology and yet can’t make a dependable printer. As one paper-trail advocate noted, ATMs and gasoline pumps regularly give paper receipts without incident.

Others complain that the paper requirement could make the machines too expensive. But if that’s the case, it would be better to delay deployment until hardware prices come down than to spike an important feature.

No one must shop online (and plenty of people still don’t). We have other venues to get goods and services. Voters, though, aren’t given a choice between paper or touch screen ballots when they arrive at polling places — which makes it vital that citizens have confidence in their local systems.

The approach of looking at this problem through the eyes of a software vendor’s customer relations department isn’t really going to help matters. Microsoft wouldn’t make changes to Word based upon the complaints of people who would rather write using a college-ruled notebook and a ball-point pen. We are being told that we will be using word processing software. If not today, soon. And that we will like it.