Monday, May 03, 2004

The foolish John R. Lott Jr.

In an essay over at National Review Online, well known "statistician" Lott attempts to defend electronic voting. In particular he dismisses the need for a paper trail ("Paper ballots add nothing, except generating unnecessary costs.") and says that there is good reason to have confidence in electronic records of the votes. He writes: (excerpts)
So what about the claim that electronic voting machines make recounts impossible because they lack paper records? Each electronic voting machine contains multiple redundant memories that are "read only." These unalterable memories are just as available to be rechecked as paper records.

Possible computer crashes or corrupted data are taken care of by multiple redundant memory systems, some of which cannot be altered but are "read only." These memories are constantly checked for any differences.
What Lott writes is completely misleading. All this talk about "read only" memory sounds good, but doesn't mean anything. The only instance of "read only" memory that would have value would be a burned in chip or CD with the computer program on it. But what about the votes? If all storage on your machine is "read only" then it is impossible to write to it. It's hard to say what Lott is getting at, since he's so confused about computers. Perhaps he was thinking about write-once/read-many storage. Perhaps not. Who can tell with this guy? And in any event, even if there was the kind of "unalterable" storage that Lott promotes, it doesn't stop a corrupted machine from writing bogus voting data. What is needed is an alternate recording medium - like paper - which can be inspected right then and there to insure that the voter's choice was properly recorded (and can be re-counted if necessary).

NOTE: We could have gone on and discussed all sorts of technical security issues at length, but it can get pretty arcane. The basic point is that machines are still vulnerable to tampering, that the tampering can be undetected, and until that major technical problem can be solved, an alternate non-electronic and human-verifiable record should be generated.


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