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A Case Against Electronic Ballot Counting

By       Message Rick Fisk     Permalink
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In many ways, technological advances in ballot counting are solutions in search of problems. Think about it. Counting votes is easy. Any literate person is capable of counting a ballot. Over the past twenty-five years, states have increasingly made use of mechanical and electronic voting equipment to mixed reviews. As the use of electronic systems has increased, so has distrust in the integrity of our elections increased.

Private companies generally apply rudimentary costs/benefit analysis before spending their money. If it won't increase their profits or advance their position in the marketplace, they won't spend the money.

Companies that  spend money without regard to profit do so at their own peril. In government, such analysis rarely occurs. Since the source of funding is treated as if it were limitless, there is rarely an economic justification made for technological expenditures.

The justification invariably used is "efficiency." The mere fact that technology exists is reason enough to apply it whenever and wherever it can be argued to make a process or agency more efficient. This absence of true market accountability has detrimental effects on taxpayers and the companies that provide goods and services exclusively to government. Since there is only one entity providing requirements and funding, the competition is limited to price alone. Innovation and common sense do not come into play.

Here's a somewhat hypothetical example of how a market is created by government. This won't be perfectly accurate but will be accurate enough for our purpose.

The legislature of a state, based on complaints and requests from voting officials
or lobbying efforts by commercial interests, issues a bill requiring that all precincts convert to electronic systems by some date. They allocate 10 million dollars to be used by various counties to lease or purchase such equipment. The requirements for the equipment may be written by congressional staffers who possess dubious technical expertise, or have dubiously interpreted the advice of technological experts who testified before a committee convened to determine best practice. Sometimes, the legislature establishes a "blue ribbon" commission to then report back or use some of the funds to provide requirements. In this case, there isn't an external market demanding special voting machines.

The examples available to them for study are other state governments that have successfully implemented electronic voting or purely theoretical claims about how wonderful it would be if such systems were employed. (When a government agency claims success, it is not the same thing as success in the commercial market. Total failure can and will be represented as success.) Once the bill passes and the money is allocated, companies begin "competing"
for the contracts. Sometimes these companies have formed in anticipation of the bill's passage. The companies must meet the requirements as agreed by the legislature or panelists. If any advances in technology occur between the times the bill is passed and the technology is created, all the worse for the taxpayers. For instance, if security wasn't fully considered when drafting the requirements,
the voters will have to wait until the legislature addresses it.

In a real market, the market itself would drive these requirements. Companies who don't meet or exceed requirements simply go out of business. Government, in an effort to hide its bad planning will simply ignore a problem until such time as the problem can be blamed on the contractor.

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Rick's first law of government contractors:           

Companies or individuals commissioned by government to provide a service or product will never produce anything which exceeds the requirements, even if the  original requirements do not describe a working system.            

Companies in contract with government don't have to exceed expectations in     order to win the contract and it isn't profitable for them to do so. They have no    incentive whatsoever to make their solution better than what was requested.            

What is finally produced, if it works at all, is likely already technologically 
 out-of-date by the time precincts receive it. It will be expensive, since the           companies producing it do not have any external market pressure and it will be    some years before a new cycle of upgrades can be justified, legislated and funded.  

Rinse and repeat.

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But don't take my word for it. In "Hacking Democracy," (an HBO documentary which has been nominated for an Emmy this year), Bev Harris and associates demonstrated how easily election results could be changed without any trace of tampering. It was so easily done, California, Iowa and Pennsylvania rushed to remove voting machines of the same make and model prior to the May, 2006 elections.

Recent California and Florida investigations into ballot scanning machines have resulted in suspension of certification for multiple manufacturers until proper security patches can be delivered.

While there isn't any evidence that elections have been tampered with, it is demonstrably possible to do so without leaving evidence. The systems in question have been on the "market" for some time.

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Software developer, writer, columnist at Lew Rockwell.com

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