Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher, a stalwart voice for democracy, gives this preview:
Coming between the Iowa and New Hampshire tallies, this Sunday's cover of The New York Times Magazine ought to strike a chord. It shows a man inside an exploding voting booth with a WARNING label over it and the words: "Your vote may be lost, destroyed, miscounted, wrongly attributed or hacked."
The massive Clive Thompson article, titled "The Bugs in the Machines," is quite chilling. "After the 2000 election," it opens, "counties around the country rushed to buy new computerized voting machines. But it turns out that these machines may cause problems worse than hanging chads. Is America ready for another contested election?"
One key passage: "The earliest critiques of digital voting booths came from the fringe -- disgruntled citizens and scared-senseless computer geeks -- but the fears have now risen to the highest levels of government."
One expert says that "about 10 percent" of the devices fail in each election.
The piece focuses on the newly popular "touch-screen" machines, noting that "in hundreds of instances, the result has been precisely the opposite" of the intention to add "clarity" to results: "they fail unpredictably, and in extremely strange ways; voters report that their choices 'flip' from one candidate to another before their eyes; machines crash or begin to count backward; votes simply vanish. (In the 80-person town of Waldenburgh, Ark., touch-screen machines tallied zero votes for one mayor candidate in 2006--even though he's pretty sure he voted for himself.)"
During this year's primaries, about one-third of all votes will be cast on touch-screens. The same ratio will likely hold this November, even with some states junking the devices.
The Times notes that "what scares election observers is this: What happens if the next presidential election is extremely close and decided by a handful of votes cast on machines that crashed?"
Then there's this: "If the machines are tested and officials are able to examine the source code, you might wonder why machines with so many flaws and bugs have gotten through. It is, critics insist, because the testing is nowhere near diligent enough, and the federal regulators are too sympathetic and cozy with the vendors."
The reporter seems to agree with this, detailing "a regulatory environment in which, effectively, no one assumes final responsibility for whether the machines function reliably," and everyone points fingers at each other.
Thompson declares, chillingly: "In essence, elections now face a similar outsourcing issue to that seen in the Iraq war, where the government has ceded so many core military responsibilities to firms like Haliburton and Blackwater that Washington can no longer fire the contractor."
Comments one elections supervisor: "This is a crazy world. The process is so under control by the vendor."
Thompson reveals that during a visit to the polls a suburb of Pittsburgh just days before last November's elections, he was left alone with six iVtronic voting machines. It looked easy to cut and reseal the seals. "In essence," he concludes, "I could have tampered with the machines in any way I wanted, with very little chance of being detected or caught."
The Times feature here. I haven't read it yet, but perhaps I will blog about it after I do.
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OK, now I've read the whole piece, and I disagree with the criticisms being levelled against it. (See comments.)
"Can You Count On These Machines?" is not about the connections between the vendors of electronic voting machines and the Republican party. It's not about how people like Katherine Harris and Kenneth Blackwell helped steal the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, and how the mainstream media ignored that. Those are all vitally important topics, but not the topics Clive Johnson set out to research.
Johnson is a tech writer, and the Times story is written from a more neutral point of view. And because of that, it's less open to accusations of partisanship, "conspiracy theory" (you know my feelings about that expression) and that reductionist catch-all for those of us who are angry and heartbroken at what's happening in the US: "Bush hating".
But read the story.
There's no doubt that it is an unqualified indictment of electronic voting. Johnson makes it very clear that the use of this technology jeopardizes the fairness and accuracy of elections. He shows that the people who most oppose electronic voting are people who know the most about computers. He explains why voting - which must be accurate and verifiable but still anonymous - is simply incompatible with computerized systems, which can be some of those things, but not all three, reliably, at the same time.
I have some problems with some of the tone and nuance of the article, but this is the New York Times Magazine, not The Nation. I don't have to agree with every word to know that the appearance of this story is a good thing.
There are many, many things wrong with the US election system, and getting rid of electronic voting is not going to fix all of them. But getting rid of electronic voting is still an important goal - and this story might help make that a reality. How can that be anything but a good thing?