Tuesday, 6 November 2012

A Brief history of vote machines, or a need to use old technology

The first major proposal for the use of voting machines came from the Chartists in 1838. Among the radical reforms called for in The People's Charter were universal suffrage and voting by secret ballot. This required major changes in the conduct of elections, and as responsible reformers, the Chartists not only demanded reforms but described how to accomplish them, publishing Schedule A, a description of how to run a polling place, and Schedule B, a description of a voting machine to be used in such a polling place.
The Chartist voting machine, attributed to Benjamin Jolly of 19 York Street in Bath, allowed each voter to cast one vote in a single race. This matched the requirements of a British parliamentary election. Each voter was to cast his vote by dropping a brass ball into the appropriate hole in the top of the machine by the candidate's name. Each voter could only vote once because each voter was given just one brass ball. The ball advanced a clockwork counter for the corresponding candidate as it passed through the machine, and then fell out the front where it could be given to the next voter.
In 1875, Henry Spratt of Kent received a U.S. patent for a voting machine that presented the ballot as an array of push buttons, one per candidate. Spratt's machine was typically British, allowing each voter to cast a fixed number of votes in a single race. In 1881, Anthony Beranek of Chicago patented the first voting machine appropriate for use in a general election in the United States. Beranek's machine presented an array of push buttons to the voter, with one row per office on the ballot, and one column per party. Interlocks behind each row prevented voting for more than one candidate per race, and an interlock with the door of the voting booth reset the machine for the next voter as each voter left the booth.
In U.S. elections, voters use pins to mark the punchcards by hand. The resulting leftover piece of paper is referred to as a piece of chad, a term originating from 1947 of unknown origin. Machines can punch chad out cleanly, but people cannot always do so, resulting in confusing to interpret ballots. New election terms have been used to describe disturbing ballot chad. Hanging chad means one corner of the chad is hanging onto the punchcard. Swinging chad means two corners are attached to the ballot card. Tri chad means three corners are hanging but the hole has been punched. Pregnant chad means a hole is punched through the chad but it still hangs on all four sides. Dimpled chad means there is an indent in the chad but no clean hole has been punched.
Commonly used in the United States until the 1990s (and commonly known as lever machines), direct recording voting systems are mechanical systems to tabulate votes. This was the first voting technology commercialized in the United States. In 1889, Jacob Myers of Rochester, New York received a patent for a voting machine that was based on Beranek's 1881 machine. This machine saw its first use in Lockport, New York, in 1892. In 1894, Sylvanus Davis added a straight-party lever and significantly simplified the interlocking mechanism used to enforce the vote-for-one rule in each race.
Marksense systems employ a ballot card on which candidates and issue choices are preprinted next to an empty rectangle, circle, oval, or an incomplete arrow. Voters record their choices by filling in the rectangle, circle or oval, or by completing the arrow. After voting, the voters either place the ballot in a sealed box or feed it into a computer-tabulating device at the precinct. The tabulating device reads the votes using "dark mark logic," whereby the computer selects the darkest mark within a given set as the correct choice or vote. Marksense technology has existed for decades and been used extensively in such areas as standardized testing and statewide lotteries. Although marksense systems are often referred to as optical scan systems, marksense technology is only one of several methods for recognizing marks on paper through optical reading techniques. Marksense systems were used by 24.6% of registered voters in the United States for the 1996 Presidential election, and their use is on the rise.

The most recent configuration in the evolution of voting systems are known as direct recording electronic, or DRE. They are an electronic implementation of the old mechanical lever systems. As with the lever machines, there is no ballot; the possible choices are visible to the voter on the front of the machine. The voter directly enters choices into electronic storage with the use of a touch-screen, push buttons, or similar device. An alphabetic keyboard is often provided with the entry device to allow for the possibility of write-in votes. The voter's choices are stored in these machines via a memory cartridge, diskette or smart card and added to the choices of all other voters. In 1996, 7.7% of the registered voters in the United States used some type of direct recording electronic voting system.
In 2004, electronic votes were wiped from machines in New Jersey and North Carolina. But the much more ominous worries over the limits and liabilities of e-voting became clear in 2008, when a study by Princeton University revealed how easy it would be to hack into the Sequoia brand of e-voting machines (used chiefly in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Louisiana) to steal votes. More disturbing is this quote from Roger Johnston, a computer science expert leading a subsequent test on Diebold AccuVote e-voting machines just last year: "I've seen high-school science fair projects that are more sophisticated than what is needed to hijack a voting machine." His crash course in vote-jacking went as follows: The equipment was hacked by inserting a very inexpensive homemade device into the voting machine, which could be remotely controlled from afar.
In practice, when the voter attempted to mark her e-ballot, the hacker could intercept and alter the vote from one party to the other.
Despite these widely reported studies, as well as HBO's 2006 documentary "Hacking Democracy," there has not yet been any effort to address these sorts of problems with either the Diebold machines or the smaller malfunctions of e-voting machines more broadly. (It is, of course, also true that there have been problems with fraud and machine error with more traditional forms of voting technology.)
The software for the e-voting machines is proprietary, which means that only the companies that manufacture them have access to their design, which they have kept from examination through extended legal battles.

The vote for the next president starts with a machine  with a possible touchscreen calibration fault or a computer system which counted the votes backwards giving negative votes. As with all computer systems, it is possible for a counter or a program system which is invisible to the eye. Judging on many inconsistencies in the pass with electronic machines, it seems more reliable to used the old mechanical counters or a system which gives the voter evidence of what he or she voted. Perhaps instead of improving a system with questionable hidden software and laughable touchscreen accuracy. The simple mechanical system might be the only guardian for true democracy, as each count can not be voided or tampered with because of it simplistic mechanism. Lets hope for a fair honest election if not then blame it on the touch screen or software...

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