|Volume 19, Number 1||Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility||Winter 2001|
Getting the Chad Out: Elections, Technology, and Reform
by Erik Nilsson
Finally, the Spotlight Falls on Elections Technology
The 2000 US presidential election was shocking and embarrassing. Americans were shocked to discover that their elections systems are woefully inadequate. The world was surprised to discover that America, one of the worlds oldest and stablest democracies, could have such rotten elections machinery.
And it was embarrassing. In Florida, a close race for president exposed technical and procedural failures. Other states experienced similar incidents, demonstrating that the embarrassment is national. It was embarrassing to have the ensuing squabble engulf all three branches of government.
It's unfortunate that such a debacle was required to focus attention on a thoroughly-researched problem. CPSR's work on election systems began in the 80s with the work of Bob Wilcox, Eva Waskell, myself, and others. Elections experts have been writing since the 70s on the inadequacy of US election systems. Unfortunately, systems that were inadequate in 1970 are still in use today, and are still inadequate.
Citizens and elected officials demand that something be done. We must replace defective systems with new ones; we must pay for these new systems; we must make voting more convenient; we must use the Internet; we must return to simpler, reliable systems; we must act boldly; we must act cautiously--there is agreement that something must be done, but no agreement on what to do.
The world's democracies watch the debate in America, and consider their own actions. Democratic nations all incorporate innovations developed around the globe over the last three centuries. The problem is not uniquely American; all democracies are re-evaluating their democratic machinery to some degree, in light of Florida.
Certainly, something must be done. Hopefully, Americans will be moved to action, not because our pride has been hurt, but because we owe ourselves and the world more trustworthy elections. Hopefully, all the world's democracies will take sensible steps where they are required. But in our headlong rush to do something, it's important to understand what is actually broken and what might be done to fix it.
To assist this critical debate, CPSR's Winter 2001 Newsletter is devoted to elections. In "No Easy Answers," Lorrie Faith Cranor surveys elections technology, evaluates the prospects for Internet voting, and makes recommendations for action. "Why Has Voting Technology Failed Us?" examines the performance of existing systems, and considers the prospects for improvement. In "Sweden to Experiment with E-voting," Anders Olsson reports on Sweden's current electoral experiments.
In "System Integrity Revisited," Rebecca Mercuri and Peter Neumann examine the reasons why current voting systems have failed. They call on computer professionals to contribute their expertise to an informed discussion.
I hope these articles contribute to your understanding and interest in elections technology. This is the third major publication CPSR has devoted to this issue. Roughly every five years, CPSR has devoted a special report or newsletter to voting. Hopefully, in 2005, the topic of elections technology will not warrant such treatment. I hope the next five years bring us elections systems worth trusting.
Erik Nilsson <firstname.lastname@example.org> chairs the CPSR Working Group on voting. He has published various articles on voting systems, written elections software, and observed elections. He is based in Seattle.
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