August 22, 2004

Transparency

There's one simple thing that keeps getting lost in all the fuss about electronic voting, in all the concerns about tampering, or tracing, etc. -- it's that transparency is the most important thing. That is, can the average voter look at the voting process and associated machines, rules, etc., and actually understand and verify every step? Can that average voter watch or monitor an actual election and confirm for themselves that -- on the election day, not just during a dry run or system test -- the system is fair and reasonably error-free, at least as far as he or she can see? Or does that average voter have to rely on certification by experts for the system -- is any step effectively a black box because of the level of detailed technical knowledge needed to understand and authenticate it?

Everything else is secondary. If the system -- or any component of it -- does not pass that test, it should not be used for important elections in any democracy.

With most -- probably all -- electronic voting systems now in use, this transparency is not even possible in principle. The older hand-tallying or card systems are cumbersome, slow, inefficient, wildly-irritating, expensive, etc., but they're much more transparent. You can see the votes being tallied (it's dead boring, believe me...), you can see the physical ballots being moved from location to the tally room, you can demand a recount with the phycial ballots, and you can have some sort of faith that you understand how the results came to be. You even have a fighting chance of catching a ballot-stuffer red-handed.

It's one thing to tally physical votes electronically -- they can always be recounted by hand -- it's another to do away with that physical record completely, and bury the process in something akin to witchcraft as far as most voters are probably concerned.

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