The New York Times Magazine asked the question, and it’s worth your time – if you have a little bit to spare – to read their quest for the answer.
Reporter Clive Thompson largely uses Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida’s experiences with electronic voting machines – and touch-screen machines in particular – as case studies for the article. San Mateo County’s electronic voting machines, called eSlates, are not touch screens. But their manufacturer, Hart InterCivic, is mentioned as one of the the nation’s key players in the business. There is much examination of the potential problems when machines don’t have an accompanying paper trail of votes cast on them – and even when they do. (eSlates have a paper trail which allows voters to verify that their votes were recorded correctly before their ballot is cast.)
Thompson gives a solid retrospective of how we got to where we are, poses some tough questions about electronic voting machines’ potential shortcomings, lays out varying perspectives in the debate and maybe even reaches a few big-picture conclusions.
Take this excerpt:
Part of the problem stems from the fact that voting requires a level of precision we demand from virtually no other technology. We demand that the systems behind A.T.M.’s and credit cards be accurate, of course. But if they’re not, we can quickly detect something is wrong: we notice that our balance is off and call the bank, or the bank notices someone in China bought $10,000 worth of clothes and calls us to make sure it’s legitimate. But in an election, the voter must remain anonymous to the government. If a machine crashes and the county worries it has lost some ballots, it cannot go back and ask voters how they voted — because it doesn’t know who they are. It is the need for anonymity that fuels the quest for perfection in voting machines.
Perfection isn’t possible, of course; every voting system has flaws. So historically, the public — and candidates for public office — have grudgingly accepted that their voting systems will produce some errors here and there. The deep, ongoing consternation over touch-screen machines stems from something new: the unpredictability of computers. Computers do not merely produce errors; they produce errors of unforeseeable magnitude. Will people trust a system when they never know how big or small its next failure will be?
It’s no accident that Thompson took his in-depth examination of electronic voting machines into swing states that will undoubtedly play a critical role in determining the outcome of November’s presidential election. While a big-picture discussion at the national level is very important, the question of whether you can rely on voting machines to accurately reflect voters’ choices is especially poignant in states where an important race will likely be close.
To that end, some states are now doing like California and ensuring that all voters have the option to vote a paper ballot at the polls. Earlier this month, Ohio’s Secretary of State ordered that paper ballots be available for their March presidential primary at polling places that use touch-screen machines. She is even looking to scrap electronic machines entirely come November, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
“That, in a nutshell, is what people crave in the highly partisan arena of modern American politics: an election that can be extremely close and yet regarded by all as fair,” Thompson writes. “Not only must the losing candidate believe in the loss; the public has to believe in it, too.”