Fun at the polls - Embedded.com

Fun at the polls

A story this week raises concerns about irregularities with electronic voting machines. This is just another example of the growing importance of security in embedded systems.

Voter fraud has been around for a long time. According to legend, Edgar Allen Poe was forcibly intoxicated and steered to numerous polling places by partisan thugs to cast votes for their candidate, and then at the end of the evening, he was tossed into a ditch to die of exposure.

When I was just a lad, many, many years ago, I lived for a time in southern Louisiana. Now Louisiana has always been a little out of sync with the rest of the country: the state has parishes instead of counties, a legal system based on the Napoleonic code rather than English Common Law, and parish government bodies called police juries that are neither police nor juries.

Several former governors have logged prison time, and one, Jimmy Davis, wrote the standard, “You are my sunshine”, which is now the Louisiana state song. Given the state's colorful history, I was not entirely surprised to hear rumors of voting difficulties in that exotic environment.

At the time I was living there, Louisiana used a system of mechanical voting machines that were apparently not tamper proof. With those machines, you pulled a lever to vote, and as the story went, they could be hacked: a metal template could be secretly installed, and pulling the lever might not result in casting a vote for the person you thought you were voting for.

Fast forward to this year. A friend is working at a polling place in Santa Clara County, California — the heart of Silicon Valley — where a touch-screen voting system is in place. He reports that in his training he was instructed not to inform voters that they could use paper ballots, but to provide them with paper ballots only if they asked. He is not clear on how they would know to ask.

Last year, Jack Ganssle wrote a couple of columns expressing his concern about electronic voting. He said “The most important feature of any vote-collecting device is public trust in its accuracy. Without that trust the units are junk.”

Election fraud does not depend on technology, but new technology does open the door to possibilities. As with any technology, perfection takes time to achieve. How good are electronic voting machines today? We are about to find out.

Be sure to vote early and often.

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