I'm sure no one's heard about it, but here in the United States we had a little fuss about the recent presidential elections. Nothing much, really, just some arguments about the way the state of Florida conducted its vote—and subsequent recounts—in large part because of paper ballots that required voters to punch holes through perforated areas. Some people didn't punch all the way through the holes, some people seem to have punched a hole they didn't want to punch, and some observers argued that the people who counted the ballots by hand might have triggered the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle—by counting (and thus handling) the ballots, they might have inadvertently changed the results. It was nothing major, and it all blew over in a day or two.
I'm kidding, of course. Arguments about the 2000 presidential election and subsequent counts are STILL going on. What we need is a voting method that isn't prone to these kinds of problems, right? Unisys thinks so and hopes to provide one. On January 11, Unisys announced that the company is teaming up with Microsoft and Dell to create a technology-based system to replace the paper-based system used in many US areas. According to a Unisys representative, Unisys will act as an integrator of the various technologies used to create the voting system. Dell will supply the computers, touch-screen monitors, and keyboards, and Microsoft will create the software that operates the system. (Microsoft denies the company is on the team. "Unisys' press release is a little misleading in that it mentions a partnership when there really is none," says Keith Hudson, a Microsoft spokesman. "Microsoft will provide software—in the same way it provides software for anyone else who wants to buy its software.")
Not to mince words, but this is a heckuva ambitious effort. To make this system work on a national scale, the application would have to do the following:
- Identify individuals on a national basis
- Support 50 million or more users on a single day
- Make sure that each individual's transaction is completed
- Allow an individual to complete only one transaction and reject any later attempts (preferably while saying, "I can't do that, Dave")
- Provide a data stream with sufficient levels of security to satisfy all concerned that no one is reading or tampering with votes
- Securely create hard copies of the votes so that they're protected in case of data loss
- MUST work right the first time
And lest we forget:
These problems aren't insoluble, but all of them—especially the last item—should be cause for concern on the part of anyone who proposes to build such a system. Obviously, such a change won't happen on a national scale at first. If the partners manage to put this voting system together, it will first be tried on a small scale, perhaps local elections, then move up to larger and larger elections as the partners work the bugs out. (If I were a partner, I'd prefer to be Dell and provide the touch-screen terminals; I think Dell has the easy part.)
The real question is whether this scheme is a good idea, and to tell the truth, I'm not sure. An electronic voting system is a very cool, very sexy, and very 21st-century idea. But do we trust electronic results enough to base national election results on them? After listening to all the recent arguments, I'm not sure we do. Perhaps it's time to return to the "check box A for Candidate A, check box B for Candidate B" method on a wide scale. Or perhaps we should go back to pulling levers to make sure that the cards are punched all the way through. There's plenty of room for online applications in elections, but as much as the geek in me likes them, I'm not sure that the US presidential election is the best place for them.