Can This Machine Be
The US's new voting systems are only as good as the people who program and use them. Which is why next week could be interesting.
By Michael Duffy
Sunday 29 October 2006
The Diebold Accuvote TSX electronic voting machine.
(Photo: Brent Humphreys / Redux for Time
A woman walked into a polling place in Peoria, Ill. last week and proceeded to use one of the new electronic voting machines set up for early voting. She logged on, went through each contest and seemed to be making her choices. After reviewing each race, the machine checked to see if she was satisfied with her selections and wanted to move on. Each time, she pressed YES, and the machine progressed to the next race. When she was done, a waving American flag appeared on the screen, indicating that her votes had been cast and recorded.
But there was a problem. The woman had not made any choices at all. She had only browsed. Now when she told the election judges she was ready to do it again-but this time actually vote-they told her it was too late. Pressing the last button, they said, is like dropping your ballot in an old-fashioned ballot box. There's no getting it back.
So this: In one week, more than 80 million Americans will go to the polls, and a record number of them - 90% - will either cast their vote on a computer or have it tabulated that way. When that many people collide with that many high-tech devices, there are going to be problems. Some will be machine malfunctions. Some could come from sabotage by poll workers or voters themselves. But in a venture this large, trouble is most likely to come from just plain human error, a fact often overlooked in an environment as charged and conspiratorial as America is in today. Four years after Congress passed a law requiring every state to vote by a method more reliable than the punch-card system that paralyzed Florida and the nation in 2000, the 2006 election is shaping up into a contest not just between Democrats and Republicans but also between people who believe in technology and those who fear machines cannot be trusted to count votes in a closely divided democracy.