Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Privacy, not machines, was the big voting issue last week


By David Gewirtz

Last week, prior to when the results were known from America's mid-term elections, I reported on my personal voting experience here in Florida. As I reported last week, this was my first voting experience in Florida and my first without the traditional, private voting booth.

Here at Computing Unplugged, we went into the election silly season with all our investigative attention at full alert. After all, leading up to the elections, we'd seen report after report about the technological problems of the new voting machines. As a technology magazine, our interest was in understanding the issues behind the new voting machines, whether they were really flawed, and what might be done to correct the situation.

"Nothing is more credible than a computer failure."

From what we'd read and the experts we talked with, we fully expected the weeks following the election to be a firestorm of protest over the failings of the machines. After all, nothing is more credible than a computer failure, and the voting machines were nothing more than repackaged computers.

But, like Y2K, there was a lot of fuss prior to the event, but no real muss afterwards. In fact, we did a Google blog search and found 5,644 mentions of "voting machines" in the week before Election Day and only 3,061 mentions after Election Day. Clearly the firestorm didn't happen.

This doesn't mean the voting machines are perfect. They're computers, so they're likely flawed and likely have security problems and issues of concern. Thankfully, there was no post-election voting machine disaster. That said, the technology behind voting machines definitely falls in within the security and technology areas we cover, and we'll be exploring them in-depth between now and the next major election in 2008.

Also, last week, I discussed my personal dismay at the privacy violations I saw at my voting place. I asked readers to tell us about their experiences, and we got a number of fascinating comments from here in America and as far away as Australia. Read on to the end, because Bernard Bolch's comment about mandatory voting in Australia is fascinating -- and I have some policy suggestions that'll make you want to elect me as your next great leader.

Voting machines very hard to use and confusing

Robert Cameron told us:

Thank you for the editorial on the voting machines in Florida. I participated in early voting used a new computerized machine in Colorado. I do not know what company made the machine. The brief comment I have is: yes, privacy is a big issue with the machines. Having worked with computers for over 30 years, I had difficulty operating it. They were very hard to use and confusing.