fresh voices from the front lines of change







I worked the polls in Fairfax, Virginia on election day 2012. I opened the door at 6:00 am, logged voters in, operated the machines, and passed out “I voted” stickers on the way out. At 10:00 pm when our results had been tabulated and machines disassembled, I signed official documents to “certify that this statement of results and write-in certification are a complete record of this election and that all of the information entered here is true and correct.”

I signed it. But it isn’t true. I can certify no such thing.

There was no fraud. I saw none and certainly did none. Indeed, my fellow poll workers were all intelligent, efficient and sincere. The monitors from both sides who watched us appeared concerned about nothing but recording who had voted and the integrity of the process.

But I truly have no idea what happened inside the black box of the electronic voting machines. I don’t know if the machines dropped one of every 100 Obama votes or added it to Romney. I don’t know if the machines periodically stopped recording votes in this relatively Democratic precinct. (Small discrepancies could easily tilt a close election without triggering alarms).

Here’s what I do know.

I know that our touch-screen machines were slow to boot-up and had technical difficulties that made them unavailable when the polls opened at six. I know that the second of our three machines had multiple problems during the day, requiring regular shut downs and re-boots. I know that our optical scanner for paper ballots sometimes rejected ballots for no reason, though a quick kick or vigorous shake would set it working again.

In short, they are machines. They are subject to the same failures and foibles as any machine. They are also subject to hacking, code problems and file corruption.

The ATM at my bank prints out a receipt. The supermarket passes me a receipt after I buy groceries with my credit card. We document plenty of electronic transactions on paper, giving people a chance to examine them for accuracy or file them for later. But not voting?

My friend who worked as an election monitor at the UN and has observed elections in places like Cambodia and South Africa once remarked, “I would never certify electronic touch-screens without a paper-trail as ‘Free and Fair.'”

The solution is easy. The touch-screen could print a receipt, like an ATM. The voter can examine it to ensure that it accurately reflects his or her vote, then drop it in a lock box. We can enjoy the efficiencies and advantages of instant results and real-time electronic calculations … but if anything goes wrong, we have evidence in a lock box. Or we can stick to optical scanners that start with bubbles filled on paper and tabulate results electronically– but keep the paper afterward.

In my precinct on Tuesday I could honestly certify that our touch-screen displayed zero votes when it opened and 815 when it closed, with Obama over Romney by 514 to 294. As for whether that’s “true and correct” — I have no idea and nobody ever will. We’re just trusting the machine.

Sure we need higher-level solutions too. I’d like to see longer voting hours, more days, easier registration and so forth. I’d like to get the money out of politics and end corporate personhood, blah blah blah. But at the very least we need to ensure that a count is a count. Electronics are great. But we need a paper trail.

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