A dumb idea

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(Host) Of all the things to worry about in the upcoming election season, commentator Philip Baruth finds himself most worried about the growing role of computers in the democratic process.

(Baruth) I’ve been responsible for more than a few boneheaded ideas in my lifetime. In fact, most of my family and friends associate me with these sorts of ideas. So I’m uniquely qualified to recognize a really staggeringly dumb idea when I see one.

Touch-screen voting, for instance.

Anyone who has ever used a computer on a regular basis knows that these machines do not operate according to any of the known physical laws of the universe. Computers run on faith, superstition, luck, curses, strange vanishings and miraculous restorations. Even computer experts – people who earn six figures a year fixing computers – will admit that in many cases they have no clear idea what’s happening inside the machine.

When my car breaks, I take it to a person who isolates a broken part, replaces it, and then charges me two thousand dollars. It’s expensive, but at least it’s barely comprehensible. When my computer breaks, though, a person comes to my office and turns the machine on and off several times, and if that doesn’t work, the person tells me to buy a new computer.

When you lose data on a computer, it’s not like you’ve lost a set of physical keys down a physical hole. No, at best a computer expert can recover the first letter of every other word in your file, and at worst they tell you to buy a new computer. At least in Dade County, Florida, during the 2000 election debacle, there were chads to hang. You could see them there, hanging, dimpling.

We could see what we were fighting over.

And it’s not just that computerized voting data can vanish at any moment. There is also the distinct possibility of deliberate tampering nefarious individuals programming the computers to read votes for Congressman Smith as votes for Congressman Jones. Fortunately, there’s a solution to this problem, which is to have each machine print out a paper receipt. Unfortunately, there’s also problem with this solution, which is that many cities and counties and states are actively resisting the push to make all touch-screen voting machines issue paper ballots. And it is this resistance to paper ballots that represents the apex of the great human capacity for doing that which is dumb.

Suppose you go into your local bank to deposit $100. You hand the teller five twenties, and she puts the money in her drawer and types something on her computer. And then you ask for a receipt, and she says no. You’d be incensed, and with good reason.

Now let’s face facts: a paper receipt isn’t going to eliminate the possibility of tampering. The voting machine could still be told to read votes for Congressman Smith as votes for Congressman Jones, and then print out receipts denying that it had done any such thing. And in fact this is the sort of devious thing that computers do all the time without any tampering, so it wouldn’t be too hard for a hacker to corrupt them.

Still, a receipt would make us average voters feel better, and that’s what it’s all about in the twenty-first century, when all’s said and done: powerful people have every right to make us use computers to vote, and they have every right to tamper with those ballots and steal our democratic system out from under us, but they don’t have a right to make us feel anxious about it.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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