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DOCUMENTS


The Tentacle


February 27, 2004

Who Do Your Trust? or Happy "Trails" To You

Tony Soltero

It's Friday afternoon. You're taking your mother-in-law out in the evening, so you saunter over to your favorite ATM for a stack of fresh twenties. You all hit the show at the Weinberg, gallantly cover the bill, and edge one millimeter closer to her ever-elusive approval.

Three days later, your stash depleted and being hit up for Girl Scout cookies by the neighbors' daughters, you return to the ATM for a refill.

Except the cash doesn't spit out this time. The screen flashes "DEADBEAT ALERT", and as a special bonus, plays Cookie Monster with your card.

This can't be. You know the money's in there. Apparently the bank's new cheap outsourced software took a few liberties with your account.

But two days and fourteen irate phone calls later, all is well again. The new card is in the mail, and your blood pressure returns to sea level. All thanks to the trusty paper receipt you stuck in your front pocket on Friday. It's nice to have proof.

Pretty simple, isn't it? That's why we have confidence in ATM's - we know we'll always have a paper record protecting us if something goes wrong.

And paper records reassure us whenever we make any electronic transaction - at the gas pump, at the airline ticket counter, at the beanie-baby website. Everywhere we swipe cards and tap our fingers upon those bright little cyan touchscreens, we know our intentions are being recorded properly. Everywhere we go, we get a hardcopy.

Well, almost everywhere.

There is one type of electronic transaction in which we currently get no verification mechanism. And that's in Maryland's recently-implemented new touch-screen voting system.

That is correct. Our vote - the foundation of our American democratic system - has been entrusted to a machine which may or may not properly record it. You cast your vote, and all you can do is hope and trust that the machine hasn't been hacked, and that it hasn't been programmed to change your vote behind your back.

Recent studies and audits (by SAIC and Johns Hopkins, among others), have shown that the widespread skepticism about these machines' integrity is well-founded. The machines, manufactured by Diebold Election Systems, have been shown to be more vulnerable to tampering than a North Korean economic report.

Unfortunately, this hasn't prevented edgy election officials from going full-speed ahead with installing these machines all across Maryland. The state purchased these machines, and by golly, the state's going to use them. Democracy, schemocracy - state officials and the lobbyists who love them have reputations to protect!

Faith-based voting. Lovely.

Fortunately, there is a simple way out of this mess. And Delegates Karen S. Montgomery (D., Montgomery) and Joan Cadden (D., Anne Arundel) have sponsored a bill (HB 53) requiring all state voting machines to produce a paper copy that can be verified by the voter.

The voter would tap his choice on the screen. The machine would then generate a paper copy. The voter would pick up the copy, verify that the printout matches his choice, and deposit the paper receipt in a nearby bin. The paper ballots are then kept around for any future recounts, or other forms of verification.

It's a win-win. We get to adopt this new, quick, efficient technology, but we also have a system a voter can trust. If a voter notices that his printout doesn't match his choice, we'll have an instant red flag on the machines' credibility. That should be enough of a deterrent for any hanky-panky.

All the arguments made by the machines' proponents - that they're easy to use, that they've been "independently audited", that tampering with election results is a crime, and "we wouldn't do that" - are red herrings meant to sidestep the real issue: How do we know that the machine is recording the same vote cast by the voter?

The only way to attain that level of confidence is to require a paper trail. It's a straightforward solution - one that doesn't require Diebold to open its proprietary software for public scrutiny, or embarrass the officials who procured these machines without being aware of their deficiencies.

If we can afford to subsidize sports stadiums, we can afford to invest in our election process.

Please urge your delegates to support HB 53. Nothing less than our democracy is at stake.

After all, would you use an ATM if all you walked away with was a little slip that said, "Trust me?"



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