Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Grumpy about local elections Part 2

The fiasco over Austin's local voting machines just makes me sick.

The machines are unaccountable because they don't have verifiable paper ballots. County clerk Dana DeBeauvoir says systems are in place to audit votes, but the problem is that if the electronic information gets put in wrong, all the audits are self confirming. It's like hitting refresh on an Excel spreadsheet without changing any of the numbers. The totals all come out the same.

Worse, DeBeauvoir has known this for many, MANY months thanks to the Texas Safe Voting Coalition and the Cyberliberties Project of the ACLU of Texas. She bitterly fought efforts to fix the problem before the vote. Now that it's too late to fix, DeBeauvoir has acknowledged the system "isn't perfect," a dramatic understatement, and says she'll look at it again after the election. Well, goody for her. It must be nice to get to knowingly behave irresponsibly and then claim credit for mildly acknowledging error after the fact.

Worse, it now turns out the new systems have user interface problems as well. In essence, the "e-slate" machines have the same problem as the "butterfly ballots" that caused all the trouble in November 2000 Palm Beach, Flordia: People who thought they were voting straight ballot Democrat have accidentally voted for Bush.

Given the unaccountable system and predictable user interface problems (didn't anybody run any test voting on the damn things?), these machines should never have been purchased, much less used in the most important election in living memory. But the Democratic Party hopes to deflect criticism from DeBeauvoir, claiming that the source of the problem isn't the machines but human error. That's completely moronic. The little old ladies in Palm Beach made errors too -- after all, the butterfly ballots COULD be filled out correctly. But when 300 people got it wrong it changed the outcome of the election.

(So far everyone who reported the problem caught the error before they voted, but of course some people inevitably won't catch it, and in that case, like the little old ladies in Palm Beach, they would never know to complain till it was too late.)

With close local races for the statehouse in play, this mess could easily change vote outcomes.

DeBeauvoir's failure to ensure the integrity of Austin's elections should earn her ouster. She had a chance to fix this before it became a problem. Her hubris has brought us to this unhappy place.