Will electronic voting rule us or we it? Jack steps into the shoes of a futuristic reporter to spin a frightening-but all too possible-future.
November 3, 2004
By Tech Booster
President-elect Bubba “The Can Man” Jones expressed surprise at his unexpected win in last night's quadrennial elections. With 100% of the precincts reporting in, Jones overwhelmed the incumbent by acquiring an astonishing 65.536% of the vote. His opponent garnered just 1.024%, with the rest strangely going to an as yet unidentified candidate named “hckergrrl.”
Seeming confused by the crush of reporters and well-wishers, Mr. Jones continued to hover protectively over his shopping cart. Suspiciously eyeing members of his new Secret Service detail, he was heard complaining about attempts to take his collection of aluminum cans and old clothes.
“Nobody ain't gonna rip off my stuff,” he muttered. “Those cans is worth two, maybe three bucks.”
Hustled into the waiting limo, he expressed delight at the prospect of sampling the car's mini-bar. Tonight, the president-elect remains in seclusion in the Blair House. Hastily recruited aides told reporters he was “sleeping off the effects of a trying campaign.”
Though it remains unclear just how Mr. Jones won the presidential election despite not being on the ballot and why the incumbent's Democratic opponent gathered not a single vote, this reporter has seldom seen an election run in such an efficient and forthright manner. Contrast last night's speedy decision with the rancorous climate four years ago, where slim margins and problems with paper ballots led to a court's decision that disenfranchised voters nationwide.
Modern technology has eliminated the age of hand-counted ballots. “Hanging chad” will be nothing more than a colorful phrase recalled in history books. Recounts now take seconds. Never again will the courts decide an election. Call 2004 “The Year of the Electronic Vote.”
Thank the citizens of Florida for our electronic elections. Misplaced ballots, poorly-punched selections, and perhaps even outright corruption held the 2000 presidential race in suspense for weeks. Determined to avoid scandals, the Sunshine State replaced thousands of antiquated manual machines with the latest electronic vote counters. High-tech touch-screens instantly record each voter's decision and transmit the results to a national database when the polls close. Recounts involve nothing more than a retransmission of the data, since we know the computers themselves are deterministic, immune from fraud, and cannot make mistakes.
Initial trials in the 2002 Florida primaries seemed less than promising. System crashes, locked up touch screens, and confusing instructions held the McBride/Reno contest in abeyance. Yet a winner did emerge to tackle the incumbent in November's general election. Call 2002 a prototype of success, one that blazed a trail to this new and better form of e-Democracy that our children will inherit.
Luddites suggest that we rely too much on software for critical systems, sometimes referring to the Navy's unfortunate Smart Ship program. Recall, though, that after the sixth fleet attacked Palau in Micronesia earlier this year, the review board showed the logic of that autonomous decision: the computer realized that Palau lacked the ability to shoot back.
“This clearly shows the efficacy of a system designed to win wars,” Admiral Decobocker noted. “The system created a war that it could not lose. The subsequent divide overflow that crashed the flagship's propulsion system was entirely unanticipated.”
(Reports indicating the ship was overwhelmed by an unruly band of Caroline Islanders who turned it into a floating casino bar remain unconfirmed.)
Other naysayers mentioned last month's recall of 600,000 Internet-ready automobiles. Hackers found they could deflate the cars' tires, reprogram the engine controllers to emit constant backfires, and lock the windows up and doors closed with the heat on “high.” Detroit reluctantly admitted to a buffer overflow problem but stated these were minor problems blown out of proportion by the press. Spokesman Graeme Kirchner once again urged passage of the National Anti-Hacking Act, saying “these bloody unsupervised latch-key kids run rampant through the computer networks. Parents should keep them bloody well away from the bloody home computer.”
To get to the truth of software risks, I interviewed Tom Thorten, lead software engineer of the SmartVote system employed so successfully in this week's elections. Here's the transcript:
Me: Mr. Thorton, isn't this device what you folks call a safety-critical system?
TT: Nah, this isn't a safety-critical app. That's for avionics and nuke plants. No one's gonna die if this thing crashes. Hey, if there's a problem with this box, ya just reset and carry on. Pretty much like any chunk a code.
Me: How can you ensure the vote is tabulated correctly?
TT: Vote? Is that what this thing does? They just told me what to put on the LCD and how to log the data. The spec was pretty light, know what I mean?
TT: Well, it's like any system. The boss is wrapped up with making promises to customers. Her boss is usually off testifying somewhere, and the Big Boss is still awaiting extradition from Barbados. It's pretty much up to me what this puppy does.
Me: How was this tested?
TT: Oh, the usual, ya know? We pounded on it some; then Bob's kid played with it for a while. Then we stuck it down in Florida in 2002. Worked pretty good, what I hear. Few probs, but as soon as we get some more developers, we'll work out the kinks. We figured most of those old folks wouldn't hit the screen too fast, but when they did, man that ole priority inversion thing hit bad, know what I mean?
Me: No. What happens to the data?TT: Oh, we toss it into one of those embedded DBs, a cool relational thing. Sure wish it was reentrant; those corruption problems are killing us. Then at the end of the day we TCP it to Republican National Headquarters. Or was it the Dems? One of them; they keep changing the IP address on us. Little do they know, we stuck in a back door that lets us set a new IP at will. Saves a recompile every time they change their freakin' minds. Those dudes then dump it all into the National Database. But our box logs the data and ships it out. After that it's not my problem.
Me: So if these things are on the net, what about security?
TT: Well, I guess some folks might want to hack their way in, but it's pretty unlikely. We're running Embedded Win eXtraP, the most secure Win OS ever. It's so good, it keeps downloading patches and fixes. Hey, the system we ship evolves to something else over the course of a year. It's like, organic, man. No one really even knows what the code base looks like now. Pretty awesome, know what I mean?
Me: So no one can break in?
TT: Nah, probably not. Well, not at least if the users had a brain. I can't figure out why our customers never seem to set up a password like the read.me tells 'em to. Half them systems are wide-open! You know users, though. It's like my cable modem, you know? I see all sorts of open systems on the cable. My kid even ripped off some lawyer's Amex numbers from a Word doc on this dude's exposed C drive. Sure am proud of that little rug rat.
Me: In Florida, some people struggled with system lockups. What happens then?
TT: Oh, jeez, customers complain about every little thing. Just reset it, for Pete's sake, and don't get your panties in a bunch.
Me: But what happens to all of that data?
TT: Bit bucket, I guess.
TT: /dev/null. You know.
The arcane language of the computer professional is something we English majors didn't learn at Princeton, but it's only proper to delegate the complexities of encryption, computers, and corporate accounting to the professionals who know them best. Proper government oversight, as mandated in the Public Security and Trusted Computing Act of 2003, ensures the nation's interest will be met.
One person, one vote
President-elect Jones inherits a fragmented constituency, divided in part by the nature of the very vote that gave him the nation's highest office. Perhaps the largest issue brought to the fore by various commentators in this post-election day is that of universal suffrage. Just what does “one person one vote” mean in a high tech age? Does your vote matter?
The 2000 presidential contest resulted in a razor-thin margin. Some contend that it makes no difference who won that election, since the difference in votes was in the noise. Either candidate would have had the support of approximately half of the electorate.
After the next mid-term elections, a slew of contests won by the narrowest of margins raised questions only recently resolved by the Supreme Court. In a unique move, the nine Justices deferred to the analysis of statisticians, who argued that uncertainty is part and parcel of every data gathering exercise. They pointed to the Giddy-up Polls which have long had an associated error band.
In Florida and other states, an automatic recount is mandated when a contest results in only 0.5% difference or less between the candidates. The statisticians argued that such a small delta is meaningless, that no amount of recounting or runoff elections would express the will of the people with any more certainty. Justices bought this argument, resulting in the famous three sigma election rule: if the error does not exceed three sigma, why worry?
As the Chief Justice wrote in his majority opinion, “Hey, this is the government. You just can't expect five nines.”
After that landmark decision, the liberal press was taken to task for circulating the idea that voting was a quaint but pointless exercise. One wag suggested, for instance, that a Republican in Maryland (there are a few) shouldn't bother casting a vote in state-wide elections. The long and overwhelming history of Democratic successes there suggests that Democrats waste their time if they vote and Republicans waste their spirit. To a first approximation, the outcome seems preordained. The old saw “my vote negates yours” now reads “my vote counts as little as yours.”
This reporter would argue that every vote counts, just as it did when the Founding Fathers brought forth this great nation more than 200 years ago. The Supreme Court's unfortunate decision did not factor in the power of technology to solve most ills. I see no reason why our scientists can't employ the same technology that so accurately guided the Mars Climate Observer to the surface of Mars, or that enabled Armstrong's triumphant Apollo 13 landing to ensure every vote counts.
Don't be misled by critics who contend that, in the absence of paper records, an e-recount is nothing more than another database download. Does a ballot whose chad-clinginess is interpreted by an army of well-intentioned but exhausted observers better represent the will of the people?
The new technology of electronic voting ensures every person is properly represented. Your touch-screen selection instantly tips the balance in favor of your candidate. The margin for error, due to the supreme number-crunching power of the computer, is surely zero. I look forward to the day when I can vote from home using the awesome power of the Internet and the security inherent in the most popular operating systems.
The rest of the story
In other news, this reporter was heartened to see the Dow Jones sharply rebound when Red Hat (the latest addition to the esteemed ranks of the 30 industrials) released their Open Vote package. At 4,096, up from yesterday's close of 2,048, the Dow promises release from this long-lived recession.
Secretary of Homeland Security Alan Greenspan again defended the administration's decision to bring the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve under the aegis of his new department.
“Only by close and coordinated monitoring of the computer networks that form the infrastructure of our markets can we ensure the integrity of our electronic transactions,” he said. “My Department guarantees that the NYSE and all other exchanges' results are fairly, accurately, and quickly reported. And I'll sign an affidavit to that effect.”
Clearly, we can rest easy in the knowledge that now our votes and our markets have attained an unprecedented reliability and accuracy, thanks to the power of distributed embedded computing.
Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at .