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Voting right

Our right to vote has two important principles: anonymity (so your vote cannot be coerced) and accountability (so your vote cannot be miscounted). Paper ballots work because the ballot is accountable (it is a physical token that represents your right to vote — counted when you identify yourself as a voter, counted when you vote, and counted when the vote is tallied), and the ballot is anonymous (you mark your ballot privately, the marks are tallied separately from your identity).

There is a possibility for fraud: extra ballots could be introduced, or ballots not counted — this is controlled by comparing the count of voters to the count of ballots; or the votes on the ballots could be incorrectly counted — this is controlled by recounting the physical ballots if something seems amiss.

So-called “electronic voting” threatens this system because there is no physical representation of each ballot. (Actually, there is a physical representation in the electronic charge of certain atoms in a RAM chip or the magnetic polarity of crystals on a hard drive; but these are hardly inspectable in the clear fashion that a physical paper ballot is.)

Independent of the issue of computers being complex and unreliable, without a physical token representing each vote that can be inspected directly by humans, there is tremendous opportunity for voter fraud, both intentional and unintentional.

If you want to know more about the issues surrounding electronic voting machines, you should read this article by Dr. Rebecca Mercuri, professor of computer science at Bryn Mawr. If you want to be frightened, read Lynn Landes' page on Voting Security.

Two recent events prompted me to think about this issue: First, a report in the Boston Globe regarding a push to use touch-screen voting machines in Massachusetts. Thankfully, Secretary Galvin is taking a careful approach. Second, a report from Scoop regarding Dr. Mercuri being ejected from an elections conference. Now, why would they want to do that?

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