Computers, Information Technology, the Internet, Ethics, Society and Human Values
Philip Pecorino, Ph.D.
Queensborough Community College, CUNY
Chapter 12 Political Change
Here is but one example of the relation of computer technologies to forms of government and to democracy in particular. This case relates to voting and the need to have an accurate and honest system for casting and counting ballots. As computers become more involved in that process of voting they gain in their importance for democracy.
November 26, 2006 Editorial from the New
One of the great hazards of the way electronic voting has been introduced in the United States is that it could end up undermining democracy by producing unreliable election results that cannot be truly audited or corrected. This month, that nightmare became a reality. Voting machines in a Congressional race in Florida — where else? — may have swallowed about 18,000 votes, far more than the nominal winner’s razor-thin margin of victory. Because those votes were in the loser’s strongest county, if there was a computer glitch it probably changed the outcome of the race.
Vern Buchanan, the Republican candidate in Florida’s 13th Congressional District, was certified the winner, with 369 more votes than the Democrat, Christine Jennings. But voting machines in Sarasota County produced about 18,000 “undervotes,” ballots on which the voter made other choices, but did not vote in the Congressional race. There have been reports of voters saying that their votes did not register when they chose Ms. Jennings, or that the race did not appear on their machines.
If the machines are to be believed — a big if — an extraordinary 14.9 percent of Sarasota County voters using the machines decided to skip the Congressional race, a highly publicized contest that voters knew could help decide which party controlled the House of Representatives. Among the absentee ballots, which were cast on paper, the undervotes were a more plausible 2.5 percent. The undervote rates in the district’s other counties were far less than in Sarasota County.
There is a good chance that if something went wrong it changed the result. Sarasota was Ms. Jennings’s strongest county, and The Orlando Sentinel’s analysis of the ballots that did not register a choice in the Congressional race found that the votes cast in other races were more Democratic than Republican — and by a margin of more than the 369 votes separating Mr. Buchanan and Ms. Jennings.
The Jennings campaign has filed a lawsuit challenging the results. There are, unfortunately, no voter-verified paper ballots, so all that can be done is to try to figure out what went on inside the “black boxes,” as critics call electronic voting machines that do not produce a paper record for each vote.
The campaign wants its experts to review the machines’ secret computer source code, the programming that runs the computer inside the machine, to look for problems. Election Systems and Software, the company that made the machines, is not saying whether it will allow this. If it resists, the courts should order the company to hand over the code — a requirement that should, in fact, be routine in all places where electronic voting machines are used.
As Ms. Jennings’s suit proceeds, we should learn more about what, if anything, went wrong, and what the options are if any remedies are needed. But one verdict is already in: electronic voting without the full array of protections, including a voter-verified paper trail, is unacceptable.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution. firstname.lastname@example.org @copyright 2006 Philip A. Pecorino
Last updated 8-2006 Return to Table of Contents