Some Pysics Insights

Paperless Voting:  A Catastrophe in the Making

The advent of touch-screen voting has the potential to be a catastrophe of unprecedented magnitude.

It's easy for those of us who supported Kerry to view the re-election of George Bush and the war in Iraq as "disasters". But consider them in a historical perspective: The war in Vietnam, the ascension to power by Joe McCarthy, the Great Depression, the Civil War and the ensuing reconstruction era -- all were considered disasters by many at the time, all were arguably at least as serious as the problems we're currently facing, and our democracy survived all of them.

But democracy doesn't "protect itself". Attempts to rig elections probably began in ancient Rome, if not earlier. Certainly, many elections in this country have been biased illegally, by ballot box stuffing, "losing" ballots, double-registering people, and any number of other tricks. For democracy to survive, we need to to actively guard against the efforts of people to circumvent the system. And to do that, we need several things.
The Diebold machines, which are used everywhere in Georgia, in much of Florida, in parts of Ohio, and in some other states, make it impossible to perform a recount. If there is suspicion of vote-tampering, there is no way to determine if it's founded or not.

In the absence of a viable recount procedure, we still can at least tell if someone is "cheating" if we have a double check on the official count. That double check is -- or should be -- provided by exit polls. But something is very wrong with the way exit polls are perceived in this country. Here's a link to an article I found very disturbing:

U.S.News on the Venezuela election

It describes possible fraud in a recent election in Venezuela, using electronic touch-screen voting. The disturbing aspect is not the possible fraud, though -- it's the U.S. reaction to the gross discrepancy between the exit poll results and the "official" results. The gap is too wide to be explained by any reasonable scenario except fraud, yet Jimmy Carter (whom I admire and respect) and the mainstream press in the United States, including the New York Times, just dismissed the exit polls as being "inaccurate". Are people so mesmerized by "official figures" and by the "infallible" output of computers that they dismiss polls done by people as automatically more suspect?

On PBS, late at night this past November 2, one of the commentators seriously suggested George Bush should ban exit polls "if he's re-elected" (the results were still in doubt at the time). The reason given was that they had been unacceptably "inaccurate" in two elections in a row, showing Florida as going against Bush each time. The bedrock assumption seems to be that the official numbers are always correct, and if there's disagreement, the exit polls must be wrong.

The planned "fix" I have read of for the "problems" with the exit polls which were seen in this election is to carefully avoid releasing the raw numbers at all in future elections.  Nobody except the statisticians at the polling company will ever get to see the "uncooked" exit poll numbers; to avoid embarrassing leaks, they will be adjusted to match the "official" numbers before they are even sent to the TV networks.

If touch-screen machines without a paper trail are adopted across most of the nation, and if exit polls are suppressed or dismissed as "inaccurate", then we have laid the groundwork for the total and permanent destruction of democracy in this country. Whether the election which just passed was "rigged" or not is, in the long view of things, not of overwhelming importance; its effects will eventually pass. But if we adopt a system which can't be double-checked, and which the party in power can invisibly "rig" in order to keep itself in power, then whether or not it's honest today, sooner or later the machines will be corrupted and after that there will be no way to repair the damage.  Because, with a currupt and uncheckable system in place, no candidate who is opposed to the system will be electable, and no referendum to change the system will ever gain a majority of the "votes".

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