Opinion » Editorial

Voting Machines

Memphis and the state of Tennessee need to re-evaluate paper-trail ballots.



Please regard what follows as a smudgy rough draft of sorts, as we look into a technology issue. Not just a particular technology issue, mind you (in this case, the problem of how to reliably tabulate election results), but in a larger sense the issue of technology itself.

But wait. It may be pointed out that "smudgy rough draft" is an obsolete metaphor, based on the long-gone practice of taking pencil or pen to paper in order to compose and transmit thoughts. As a culture, we've even advanced upon the antique tool of the "word processor." All thoughts considered worth preserving in written form now must pass through the cybernetic portal and enter "the cloud." There it is — all our wisdom, insights, and important data — up there floating somewhere invisibly but able to be called down to earth in concrete form by whoever knows how to command it.


And, aye, there's the rub. For better and for worse, computerized information, encrypted or otherwise, is potentially open to hackers, a growing population that might even be said to be teeming just now, whose practitioners don't need no stinkin' badges. Or passwords, either.

On the political scene, growing numbers of observers have been worrying out loud about the vulnerability of our voting devices, especially those — like the ESS-manufactured machines in use in Shelby County — which depend so heavily on the computerized processing of results. Opponents, like local investigator Joe Weinberg, contend that both the hardware and software of these machines, and electronic devices like them, are inherently unreliable and subject to being hacked. Anybody who has looked into the fruits of Weinberg's researches will realize, at the very least, how complicated these mechanisms are and how complex the potential problems they present.

Rich Holden, the current administrator of the Shelby County Election Commission, has insisted that the margin for error of these election machines is infinitesimally small, and he contends that, as instruments for measuring the vote, they are far more efficient, less time-consuming, and more accurate by far than the old practice of voting via paper ballots. He sees that method as retrograde and believes that a return to it is the true goal of those who criticize the now-prevailing method.

Weinberg and others respond not only with doubt regarding these premises but with suggestions that some amalgam of counting methods — typified by the Opti-Scan machines, which produce an electronic record and a simultaneous paper printout — are an ideal solution. Indeed, the Tennessee General Assembly, in its 2008 session, voted with bipartisan unanimity to require such "paper-trail" devices statewide, but subsequent Republican-dominated legislatures first blocked, then canceled the scheduled transition.

The federal monies that had been supplied for the statewide machine makeover were, instead, tapped to fund "information" campaigns for newly enacted photo-ID measures, the rationale for which was voter fraud — something that has occurred in Tennessee with conspicuous rarity, especially when contrasted with the frequency of electronic glitches.

We'd love to see the contending parties get beyond partisanship and rethink this issue. The General Assembly had it right in 2008.


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