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E-voting tested in Canada

The U.S. electoral system is a mess. If it’s not a debate about hanging chads and impropriety in Florida, then it’s a controversy over the companies contracted to replace the chad and ballot system with touch-screen voting booths.

The U.S. electoral system is a mess. If it’s not a debate about hanging chads and impropriety in Florida, then it’s a controversy over the companies contracted to replace the chad and ballot system with touch-screen voting booths.

Still, the current administration is determined to bring American voting standards and democracy into the next millennium. Although getting rid of the antiquated and unrepresentative electoral college system would be a good move, and it would be nice to have a viable third party option, upgrading the way people cast their votes is a good start.

There have been a few bugs thus far. In one byelection, three candidates won their ridings with the exact same number of votes – a statistical impossibility on par with winning the 6/49 jackpot three Saturday’s in a row. The systems don’t issue any receipts just yet, and leave no trail for auditors to follow if there’s a discrepancy or grounds for a recount.

Furthermore, some critics have pointed out that the systems are not totally secure from hackers, and that voting results could be manipulated.

Then there are the simple technical errors. In one election, it was discovered that the little boxes on the screen you push didn’t line up properly with the array of choices voters had to make.

Still, government is pushing ahead, aided by the Help America Vote Act and almost $4 billion in grants to states to modernize their voting equipment.

Bugs are being worked out, the computer code is being evaluated by supposedly independent sources, paper trails are being given serious consideration, and most states will give the green light to electronic voting in the 2004 presidential election. Expect it to be a very controversial issue, especially in states where the results don’t match up with opinion polls, exit polls, and the Republican Party wins – all three companies manufacturing e-voting systems in the U.S. are Republican Party supporters. One CEO, Walden O’Dell of Diebold Inc., actually wrote a letter to Republican Party members that "I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." Wonder how they won the contract. Anyway…

To read more about the perils and pitfalls of touch screen voting, read Paul Krugman’s article from the New York Times at; the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility comments to the California Touch Screen Task Force at; Mark Fiore’s cartoon Digital Democracy at; any one of the articles at; and Fair Elections at

Why is this important to Canada? Because we’re not all that far behind.

While touch-screen voting is prohibitively expensive and unnecessary for a country out size – we manage to hand count results for our national elections in about four hours – a number of tests are currently going on that involve online voting. The Democratic Primary in Michigan is attempting something similar next week.

In the city of Markham, Ontario, Internet voting was allowed in the recent municipal elections. Only 27 per cent of eligible voters actually cast their ballots in that race – there weren’t a lot of issues on the table to excite voters – but 17 per cent of those votes, 11,700 ballots, were cast online.

A $400,000 study of the election found that the online voting system worked pretty smoothly.

The way it worked was that individuals who registered in advance were given a personal identification number and a password to get into the system. Those votes could be cast at any time, although the results were kept secret until after the election.

The study found that security wasn’t a major problem – nobody attempted to hack the system, and safeguards ensured that each number and password could only be used once. Although people could technically vote for other people, they would have had to get the number and password from them somehow, so it’s difficult to imagine people getting hold of enough votes to sway an election.

Still, there is always the possibility that the system will be cracked, that passwords could be stolen, or the election shut down by a virus or cyber attack. The Markham results were audited but people still needed assurances that their votes were in fact counted.

It’s also interesting to note that the software for the municipal election was developed by Election Systems and Software of Nebraska, and not by a public institutions. As a result, the code that makes the online election possible is propriety, and not up to the same public scrutiny as other voting systems.

Digital voting breaks new ground and should be watched very carefully to ensure that it isn’t exploited, manipulated, prone to technical failures, or otherwise mistaken. It’s not a software thing, but a people thing, and people can’t always be trusted when there’s an election at stake. If there are problems, impartial officials shouldn’t hesitate to pull the plug.

While digital elections are a neat concept, the idea that they can increase voter turnout needs to be given serious thought – people don’t vote because it’s easy, they vote because they believe in something or someone, and accept their duties as a citizen of a democracy. All the computers in the world won’t be able to foster that feeling in a lazy, jaded and apathetic public.

Google a class act?

Seattle is/was/will be again the Internet capital of the U.S., leading the country in things like wireless connectivity and hip cyber café’s. The city lost a lot of ground when the dot-com bubble imploded, but it’s clawing its way back. Having Microsoft in your backyard helps, as do solid technology programs at the University of Washington.

Still, you have to wonder why UW decided to base an entire class – grades and all – on the Google search engine. An article in the Seattle Times’ Technology section explained it like this:

"Google – the popular Internet search engine – has permeated our lives so much that it has become a cultural icon. It’s more than a simple search box that gives Internet users access to 3.3 billion Web pages. People play Google parlor games. They ‘Google’ each other before going on a date…"

The UW class, taught at UW’s Information School, looks at Google as a cultural phenomenon, a business, a technology, and a potential world changer – the search results you do find on Google are as interesting as the search results you don’t. The degree to which search results can be manipulated could have massive consequences.

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