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Why touchscreen voting machines are not like ATMs

  • eridani (1429 posts)
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    Why touchscreen voting machines are not like ATMs

    ATM software is open, but voting software is proprietary
    Banks insist that all code in ATMs be fully disclosed to them and they won’t trust their money or their depositors’ money with anything less. Voting software by comparison is considered proprietary.  Companies that make both ATMs and voting machines proudly boast of their open source software for ATMs in their advertising. This situation could conceivably be changed by demanding that voting software also be fully disclosed, but there are other reasons why open source code is not by itself sufficient to make voting machines like ATMs. For example, it would be necessary to match the code on all voting machines to verify its identity with the true open source master code immediately prior to each election.  But even then, any diskette or other similar device could introduce a virus or other malware that deletes itself.  Furthermore, human beings can not observe the vote counting even in open source environments.

    In addition, there is the problem that open source code itself is not necessarily “knowable”. One can think of the law as being open source “code”, free of copyright and at least in theory available to all in free libraries. However, like the extensive areas of code in computer programs that often have unknown functions or utility, even a lawyer who spends his life studying the law doesn’t understand how every bit of the “open source” law works, nor can we the people realistically understand even a fraction of exactly how the open source code for voting machines would work. Even with open source code, then, we would be required to accept election results on trust or faith, which is the opposite of checks and balances.

    Were the code of the voting machine vendors suddenly opened up or disclosed, it would take a long time to understand it, we may in fact never understand it, and those who do understand will only be a handful of experts with a lot of time on their hands, probably paid by the government or a vendor and not loyal solely to the public.

    Individual ATM transactions can be tracked, but individual secret ballots cannot be tracked

    Every transaction in an ATM is completely tracked with redundant account numbers traceable to the account holder, and your transaction is photographed or videotaped for security purposes. In contrast, a secret ballot cannot possibly be associated with such an identifying number and still remain secret. The very secrecy of the ballot creates a virtually untraceable system that is wide open to both fraud and the cover-up of material irregularities. It is not feasible to provide a receipt in elections to prove a transaction because of concerns about using it to sell votes, though this concern might be addressed by making verification available only to the voter in secure locations like the elections offices.

    To make ATM banking perfectly analogous to the process of voting, you’d have to have every account holder at a bank make a non-traceable (secret ballot) cash deposit on the same day (election day) by dropping this anonymous deposit (ballot) into a large bin (ballot box). Bank officers would then calculate the total amount of money deposited in secret with no public oversight, but not start counting until after the bank (polls) close.  The account holders (the voting public) would then come back at the closing of the business day (election night) with the media in tow demanding instantly reliable bank balances and overall account results within minutes or hours of the closing of the bank (polls). Bankers (election officials) would insist along with some in the media that the convenience of speedy results was far more important than accuracy in one’s bank account (election results).

    The insane rush to count the bank deposits (ballots) within minutes or hours on election night would them be used as a primary argument for making the banking deposits invisible and unverifiable by converting them to electrons, so that they could be processed all the more quickly and conveniently. Hopefully it is obvious that in such elections we would be putting intense pressure on a very fragile and inherently unauditable system.  In contrast, public and auditable systems can work only at deliberate, and visible, speed.

    ATM errors typically have no consequence for users because they are correctable, but ballot tabulation errors have very serious consequences that are usually not correctable

    With banks, you have at least 60 days after receiving your statement, if not much longer, to contest and challenge the transactions involving your account. With voting, there is no possibility at all of correcting your vote after you leave the polling place. In fact, voters are considered legally incompetent to contest their ballots with extrinsic evidence under stringent anti-challenge provisions. Election contest laws are subject to extremely short statutes of limitation such as ten days. At any rate, you couldn’t locate your own specific ballot for purposes of challenging its tabulation, and some elections officials have preemptively cited academic research purporting to suggest that significant numbers of voters “don’t accurately remember their own votes” after having voted, in order to cast doubt on members of the public who may wish to question the tabulation of their own votes. Thus, nothing is allowed to impeach or contest the rushed count, not even the voters themselves were they somehow able to show their own ballots counted incorrectly.

    Broken touch screen voting machines have disenfranchised many, many people who have had to get back to work or school before a functioning one could be made available to them during limited voting hours. A broken ATM just means that you have to go to another bank branch or supermarket, at any hour of the day or night. In the case of voting, touch screen machines are expensive bottlenecks where you may be forced to stay in a long line at only one polling place. You usually cannot go elsewhere to cast your vote, though in some states a provisional ballot may be allowable.

    In summary, you vote untraceably (assuming that you aren’t turned away unable to access a functioning machine, or by long lines), you’re not allowed to challenge or change even your own vote, you’re not trusted to remember it, and then the elections officials refuse to disclose their data (ballots) or their analysis methods (counting software) on the grounds of trade secrecy, only releasing their conclusions (election results).

    Such a system has absolutely none of the safeguards built into ATMs, which have quadruple redundancy. If you take out $100, you can count the five crisp $20s, check the receipt, cross-reference it with your bank statement listing individual transactions tagged with unique numbers, and if necessary, request the photo of you making the transaction.

    ATMs have extensive real world testing that vote counting systems can never have

    Principles of elementary systems analysis dictate that any complex system, whether mechanical or electronic, is highly unlikely to ever be free of bugs. Such systems can, however, eventually be made robust and reliable by banging them against reality hard and often. ATMs are part of a complex system that has had most of the bugs worked out of it by being constantly tested in the real world, billions of times an hour, 24/7, 365 days a year. Even so, they still malfunction occasionally, though if you run into one that isn’t working it’s usually a minor hassle to find another one.

    In contrast, voting is something we do a couple of times a year, and letting machines with complex hardware and software do it for us means that elections must inevitably always be a beta test. This is why you rarely hear of ATMs that don’t work because of heat or cold or humidity, but commonly hear of voting machine breakdowns for those reasons and many others. If we only drove our cars for a couple of hours once a year, they’d suck pretty badly too. Beta test mode is absolutely unacceptable for something as important as voting.

    Moreover, even if billions were spent on ATMs, there is no conceivable way that we would all be able to use an ATM in the same 14 hour time period, even under completely optimal and bug-free conditions. Forcing voters to use electronic voting machines means forcing them to stand in long lines instead of the five minute service guarantees we are used to in stores. The “promised land” of electronic voting promises only convenience for election officials, inherent invisibility of mistakes (which appeals to both vendors and election officials), and replicates the situation we now have with school systems whereby rich districts get great service and poor districts get poor service. The ultimate effect of electronic voting is therefore structural disenfranchisement of the poor by the forced bottlenecks of expensive machines.

    We can safely entrust others with tracking ATM transactions, but we can only trust ourselves to supervise vote tabulation

    The current situation is this. We now have no basis for confidence in election results because the data and the method of its analysis are never disclosed—only conclusions (election results) are disclosed. Voters are considered legally incompetent to change or challenge their votes, or even to recall what those votes were. Voters are widely considered by elections officials to be the cause of machine malfunctions themselves, resulting in delayed responses to fix them.  Furthermore, the poll workers are not supposed to observe the voters and therefore can’t easily verify whether a given problem is a machine problem or a voter problem.  (Would any self-respecting software engineers refuse to include an undo function in their word-processing program, and then blame users for not being smart enough to avoid mistakes 100% of the time?  Most “user” error is really system design error—real world testing should result in errors being hard to make and easy to recover from.)

    We need to fight for democracy here in our time, meaning that the government must serve the public, which is the ultimate source of political power, and not the other way around. Public “servants” should not seek their own convenience and insulation from accountability for mistakes, but should instead be rewarded for falling on their swords and reporting problems voluntarily and immediately.

    We the People must insist on vote counting methods that are transparent and public, that have robust checks and balances, and that keep fully in mind the very unique features of elections that make them not analogous to much of anything else. Thomas Jefferson anticipated every generation would need a revolution in democratic values to remember the inalienable rights of We the People and assert them against government officials who (quite naturally and even understandably) believe that their full time specialist status entitles them to special rights, because that is the route to something other than democracy, something other than We the People being in charge.

    The Crone, snot, valerief and 7 others7wo7rees, Scuba, xynthee, GivingItToYouStraight, vadem, historylovr, Downwinder like this
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