A Completely Non-political Question[: Is American democracy dying?]

Is American democracy dying?

Having seen numerous documentaries / reports - from sources more reputable than Michael Moore - I believe that the 2000 election results were questionable and it’s arguable that Gore should have been the President.

My girlfriend and I watched the movie * Uncounted * recently and were particularly taken aback by the claim that a number of polling stations had nothing with which to register the vote save for a computer and its program.

We were both shocked that there was no physical record of the votes except the printout from the computer at the end of the night - a printout that can only be verified by checking against the memory of the computer that printed it

I’m Canadian and everytime that I have voted I have: gone into a cardboard cubicle, marked an X on a piece of paper, folded it as per instruction and placed it in a box. The box was right in front of at least two poll-clerks plus scrutineers from the various parties.

This isn’t a “partisan” question because I’m not “partisan” - I’m a bystander. I’d really like to know what the state of American democracy is.

When I used my Credit cards, an Atm or buy something on Ebay, there is no physical records. Yet my transactions are all processed. There is nothing inherently unsafe about computer voting records. It all depends on the system. The same can be said of paper ballots, they are only as safe as the system that safeguards them. The paper ballot system produced “Landslide Lyndon” Johnson, the election of 1876, the election of 1960, and the Florida recount’s hanging chads. American democracy is as healthy as it has ever been.
You should be careful about taking documentaries too seriously, I guarantee a talented documentarian could make just as convincing a documentary taking the exact opposite point of view.

If you were to take something like an ATM (which is virtually impregnable), then give it a printer, an internal hard drive, plus a connection to the internet, you’ve got all the record keeping you could ever want and more. Add on SSL, randomised keycodes, popping up the candidates in random order on the screen based on a value hardcoded into the machine, and other such fun stuff, and the system is pretty well tamper proof.

No matter what, you can always make a more secure and retraceable voting method out of computers than pen and paper.

The reasons for why good voting machines aren’t made is that, a) they’re expensive, b) if they ask for user identification of some sort (name, address, etc.) Democrats don’t like that.

The critical difference between an ATM and a voting machine, whether there is ATM level security on it or not, is that with an ATM there is someone who will be aware if some thing goes wrong. If you get a statement saying that you took out an extra $400 than you actually did you will recognize that and yell at the bank until they fix their error (and this does on occasion happen). With a voting machine there is no one who can say for certain that there was a problem as there is nothing to check against.

I wouldn’t quite say that. There is a risk of data corruption in any system, whether it be malice or a mistake, or if the system consists of pieces of paper or 1s and 0s. Now, it’s in Visa and the banks’ best interests that the card reader at Walgreens isn’t skimming money from their customers. But very large, powerful groups have a lot invested in election results, and it may not be in one (or more) of those groups’ best interest to have everything run as designed.

Not saying I necessarily believe this has happened, but there’s theoretically a lot more strings pulling election results than a credit card swipe.

Why people think physical automatically equals safe is beyond me. The old style voting machines always had problems with vote fraud…hell, all the way back to scratch marks on stones being put in one bucket or the other. I think what scares people is they don’t understand the technology…so, it seems magical to them and freighting. They don’t understand it…while they understand (or THINK they understand) the old punch card system with the old levers or switches you pulled…or the ballots you simply wrote on with a no. 5 pencil.

Both system can potentially be corrupted, as both are merely tools…in the end it’s the people behind the tool (counting the votes or administering the centers) who can corrupt the system (or not). And they can do it if we are talking about physical votes on paper or electronic votes in a computer. The print outs everyone raves about? Means nothing in the end if the people administering the vote are corrupt. There will always be a way to fuck with the results if you are determined enough.


Another critical difference is that voting is supposed to be anonymous, while banking obviously isn’t. I’m sure they could develop a system where the government assigns a unique ID to each registered voter, and have a computer system keep track of the vote cast by each voter. But would we want that?

Voter fraud goes back all the way to the birth of democracy. You can voter fraud in any democracy, but things are a lot better now than they were when Lyndon Johnson was around.

Another thing to think about is whether politicians who get elected through fraudulent means will want to later change the system.

You can worry about democracy when a non-democratic party tries to defraud the system.

How do you know that the poll-clerks and scrutineers were honest?

But you can know (though it may be hard to prove) if something goes wrong. Also, I suspect you can get a receipt when you use an ATM or a credit card.

This does NOT apply to voting computers without a per-vote, veriviable-by-the-voter paper trail. You push a touch screen, a couple of thousands other people do too, and whatever is shown on the screen at the end of the charade can’t be proven to be correct. at all.

I am a computer programmer by trade. If i had any access to these kinds of voting computers (which really isn’t hard at all if you’re determined and completely trivial if you work for a company manufacturing them), it’s absolutely easy to shift the results significantly enough to give your party an enormous advantage - and it will not be possible to prove that anything at all went wrong. This is especially the case in a two-party system where the votes are generally close anyway.

For the fraudulent, yes, it’s much much easier right now.

You should worry when there’s no way to know that it’s happening at all.

sorry for making another post, but I just read this and my edit-time had expired.

It would be nice to be sure, but the real reason it’s not as big a deal is that in order to commit significant fraud, ALL of the observers in a significant amount of voting locations would have to be dishonest. All it would take to do this electronically is a single programmer with access to a significant amount of voting computers. And oversight at the voting stations would become completely irrelevant.

And that’s the way it should be. Its impossible to intimidate someone or buy their vote unless there is a record of it.

Without a record, I could take $20 to vote for Obama, go in and vote for whomever I like, and who is going to gainsay me?

Vote fraud has certainly been around since about 5 minutes after the first person invented voting.

The issue with computers is it can be done more easily and on a much larger scale then messing with the stones in the bucket. Being a computer simply modify the program and you can get whatever result the programmer wants. Instead of a handful of votes getting modified you can, quite literally, modify every single vote that computer handles.

I am not saying it is time to don our tinfoil hats but certainly some very strict oversight needs to be done to ensure the computer is doing what it is supposed to be doing with no monkey business.

Exactly right. This is also exactly why secure purely electronic voting is a fiction. There is a reason why voting used to be done by putting marked ballots in a simple container: the only person who can check if that ballot is correct is the person casting the vote. All that can be done afterwards is check if the ballots aren’t being tampered with and if the votes are being counted correctly. You can’t check any of these problems with purely digital voting. At least not when it’s anonymous.

To answer the first question in the OP, whether “American democracy is dying?”, I mentioned in another thread that many of the stories about Congressional resistance to the bailout plan have mentioned all the letters and phone calls from constituents communicating their outrage against the bailout.

I think the American people haven’t been paying attention for the last 7 years, and by extension, neither have their representatives in Congress been very attentive. I get the feeling that a lot of Americans are paying attention to what is happening now and letting their representatives know how they feel. Therefore, no, I don’t think American democracy is dying, I just think it was asleep.

This in another angle than the voting security issue raised in the OP.

But I find it amazing to remember that forty years ago, LBJ, as power-hungry and agressive a politician as ever lived, decided not to run for re-election because (basically) he’d screwed up the Viet Nam war, and the public was holding him responsible for it.

I can’t in a million years imagine Dubya doing that (and to keep this from getting completely partisan, I think that most presidents forty or more years ago would have stepped down if they’d gotten impeached, as Nixon did (when it was imminent) and Clinton didn’t).

IMO, the political class today acts as if the electorate can be more easily swayed than in times past.

Part of me says it isn’t so: selection of candidates was much more private than it is now.

And the media was more tightly controlled then. While telecomms deregulation has concentrated media ownership in a smaller number of hands than a few years ago, the internet and all the youtube and myface outlets have made it MUCH harder for powerful moguls to squash a damaging story than was the case forty years ago.

But even if it’s not more tightly controlled, media today is so much more pervasive that it might be easier to influence people than it was in the days of three TV networks and lots of newspapers. Even if they can’t stamp out a story, the spin doctors have more ability to convince the target audience that a damaging story doesn’t matter. The increased focus on identity politics is especially powerful at this: people seem willing to disbelieve their own eyes and ears if convinced their candidate is being attacked by an ‘enemy’.

I don’t know whether I believe Ron Suskind when he claimed that a Bush administration official said that they “make their own reality”, but I think there’s a grain of truth to it.

Talking about ATMs and voting machines, did you know that Diebold, that bugaboo of voting machine conspiracy theories, is also the world’s largest manufacturer of ATMs? In fact, it was their expertise in building ATMs that led them into the business of making voting machines in the first place.


I don’t think it’s easier…I think it’s different. But a hard copy print out of the vote wouldn’t make it any more secure IMHO…if someone was going to go to the trouble of burying Easter Eggs in the code then they could work through that as well. I think that oversight is needed, and quality control and testing…all the things we’d expect in a secure and trusted system.

I just think that the amount of evidence for WIDESPREAD electronic vote fraud are pretty sketchy and are driven more by fear (and bewilderment over losing to guys like Bush) than by hard facts. This isn’t to say that the current electronic voting systems couldn’t be improved…they could be. However, the vendors basically gave the government what they asked for…and it wasn’t just the Republicans who bought these things, nor was buying them a Republican plot.

I agree. I think a good first step would be to get the government to write a good RFP for a voting system that actually has all the checks in it to ensure it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. And then to actually do testing on the product before adopting it. I don’t believe that paper printouts are necessary to ensure a minimum of hanky-panky


The problem is not if fraud is possible. The problem is: can we detect if anything shady is happening, and do we have some measure of verifying things at a later date?

Assuming the hard copy was being handled exactly the same way a paper ballot was being handled - have the voter verify it and cast it in a container with all the other prints, and have observers at the container - this would make fraud at least as easy to detect as it would be with just paper ballots. Without a paper trail, detecting fraud would be practically impossible.

How do you propose to check without a paper trail that the computers actually will count and have counted the votes correctly?

You will need at least three observers (to check on each other) capable of checking the computers at every polling station at every point during the voting and counting stages. You should also not be able to count each vote as it’s being cast, since that would make voting non-anonymous which would open it up to bribes.