Good news, but...

I was one of many, in 2006, who voted and had no confidence that his vote was recorded accurately. Sure, the races I voted in and had followed closely turned out the way I expected--Bill Nelson handily defeated Cruella DeVil, Charlie Crist beat Garfield's owner, and my Representative won because no one challenged her--but I had no real confidence in the black box system I used to cast my vote. So it was with some gladness that I read yesterday that Broward County took delivery of their new optical scan voting machines. We won't get to use them until local elections in August of 2008, but at least we'll have them.

But I don't want to make this sound as though the problem is suddenly solved, and that we'll automatically have clean counts of ballots now. It isn't that easy. The real problem with the ATM style machines, especially those with no paper trail, was that they didn't fail well. Forget the issues with tampering--yes, they are legion, but there are far more effective ways to rig an election than by getting into the electronics of a system--problems with hardware were far more disconcerting. How do you count electronic votes if the system crashes, if you get the equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death on a voting machine? What if the power goes out? Can the system function in the worst of all possible conditions? The simple answer to the ATM version is no, on all counts.

Optical scan has the primary advantage of a hard copy of the ballot marked by the individual voter, which is saved and can be used to both recount by hand and audit the system. But the key word there is "can." The best optical scan machines in the world won't be worth a damn if the auditors don't audit the system, or if the audit is rigged which has happened before. So when I say this is good news, it's only half the story. The machines are better, but we still have to make sure the people running the machines are doing their jobs honestly.

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