Rock the Vote

Electronic voting was supposed to render paper in the polling booth obsolete.

by / November 5, 2006

It's November, and that means it's time for ... Christmas music!

No, November means it's time for Americans to play their part in the theater of the absurd we call politics. It's a part that the cynics among us argue is meaningless -- casting a vote.

This election season shows promise for much drama: Control of Congress is up in the air, and voters in 36 states will hold gubernatorial elections, many of them using electronic voting machines.

E-voting took a significant hit to its already-tenuous credibility this year.

In September, researchers at Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy told the world they created software that when installed on e-voting machines could alter how the devices count votes. Newspapers and magazines were full of stories about e-voting machines coughing up hairballs during primary elections.

Maryland's Gov. Robert Ehrlich would very much like the state to revert to paper ballots after primary elections replete with counting errors and other malfunctions in some counties, according to The Washington Post. The governor also warned that he would call a special session of the Maryland General Assembly to change the state's election law to allow paper ballots.

E-voting machines were supposed to fix the capriciousness of plain ol' paper ballots -- hanging chad and butterfly ballot, anyone? -- but the technology hasn't quite gotten there yet.

Perhaps the problem isn't the hardware and software used in e-voting machines. Perhaps the problem is that this country hasn't done enough to make e-voting a reality. Other countries have been at e-voting for a decade, and one country, Estonia, moved its local elections to Internet voting on a nationwide scale in 2005.

In 2000, then-Gov. Gray Davis, while participating in a conference on the future of Internet voting co-sponsored by the Brookings Institution and Cisco Systems, predicted Californians would be voting via the Internet within five to seven years.

Hmm ... well, it's 2006 and that sure hasn't happened yet.

Perhaps the problem is that America is just too timid. Sure, the United States is bigger than Estonia, but at least government officials in Estonia have enough moxie to give e-voting a go. In media coverage of Estonia's online voting experiment, Estonian government officials reported no trouble from ne'er-do-wells trying to tamper with voting.

If Estonia can pull it off, why can't we?

What's stopping us? The fear of failing? Sure, failing is not pleasant, and there's no doubt that botching an election is not a good thing for elected officials, public-sector employees and voters themselves.

But maybe what election officials really fear is what would happen if Internet voting succeeded.
Shane Peterson Associate Editor