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The Hugo Chavez Test for Voting Machines

malcomx.jpgAt first I thought that the stories around Sequoia Voting Systems and Smartmatic having connections to Hugo Chavez were silly. I still do think that, but I also think that they’re coming out for an important reason: we have lost trust in the machinery of voting, and that is a criminal shame.

The right to vote, and to have one’s vote counted is fundamental to how and why we accept our government, even when it makes colossal mistakes. This is an ideal which people around the world recognize and aspire to. The imprint of legitimacy which an election confers on a leader is important enough that even the Soviets faked elections so they could claim that mantle.

If we had voting systems that were trustworthy, transparent and understood by those operating them, then we could buy our voting machines from Hugo Chavez or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and not have to worry a lot about it. We do not, and cannot. We have transitioned from paper ballots and their understood problems into a brave new world of computerized and untrustworthy voting systems, and we are poorer for it.

I propose we call this the Hugo Chavez test, and see how all new voting technology fares under the test. We could realistically consider buying paper ballots, punch cards, or other verifiable voting technologies from the Chavez government, and be reasonably confident in our ability to test them and be sure we were getting what we specified. (I’m confident someone will point out an exceptionally clever trick, so read the comments.) I’m also confident that we can’t say the same of any computerized system on the market today. Our ability to audit them is simply too lacking, and the skills to do so too rare.

The photo is Malcom X, because we sometimes forget that within living memory, not all Americans had a right to vote. We forget that that right was important enough for Malcom X to declare 1964 might be be the “year of the ballot or the bullet.” That the ballot is so powerful that men ready to commit acts of violence could be placated by giving them the right to vote. It’s an important right, and the value of trust that our votes are counted accurately and securely is nearly incalculable.

3 comments on "The Hugo Chavez Test for Voting Machines"

  • Allan Friedman says:

    Adam, that’s a great test, for voting technology and a large swath of policy. Assuming that an adversary can manipulate the process is a great recipe for transparent process. If Hugo Chavez had a controlling share of Halliburton, would the Right be so cavalier about no-bid contracts?

  • David Brodbeck says:

    I’m just glad Republicans finally have a reason to worry about voting machines. For a long time it seemed like this was treated as a partisan issue, with the Republicans saying everything was fine and accusing anyone who brought it up of being a sore-loser Democrat. Now that both parties feel threatened by it, maybe we can get something done about it.

  • There is nothing fundamental about the right to vote and the right for one’s vote to be counted. At a well-specified level of technology that is about to be superseded, voting has just been a cheap, yet reasonably accurate substitute for violence.
    In a world, where anything even remotely efficient (including violence and security) could be achieved only by massive concentration of capital and joint effort, it was true that one who had more followers would probably come out on top from violent confrontation. Hence, people were willing to fight for the right to vote.
    Those times are about to be over. As the means of production as well as those of warfare are becoming smaller and cheaper (an inevitable consequence of technical progress), the above mentioned basic democratic assumption fails.
    When small groups or even individuals will be sufficiently empowered by technology to fend for themselves, democracy, this repugnant invention of slave-masters, will fade away.
    On the internet, that is already the case. With potent means of defense like strong encryption, geographically dispersed backups and hot-spares, I have no reason (and no desire) whatsoever to submit to the will of the government, no matter how democratic the process from which it derives its power. Voting about issues concerning the internet (or its use by individuals) is pointless.
    Democracy is, indeed, the most efficient means of coercion. However, as we all know from economic theory, coercion is still an inefficient means of allocating resources.

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