Voting machines: Why we’ll never trust them

Virginia Heffernan, Yahoo News
Yahoo News

By Virginia Heffernan

A voter’s moment of solitude at the polls may be the greatest intimacy she ever experiences with her government. The macro abstractions of the campaign—the economy, demographics, the country’s future—suddenly contract to a dot. Voting turns micro. And it’s hard to be blasé about it. You enter a sheltered booth, like a peep show; you graze a screen, heave a lever or blacken a circle. Red or blue. Experience or change. Obama or Romney. Or other. Or none.

The defining civic procedure of American democracy is cloaked in secrecy—secrecy that’s meant to be liberating. But secrecy breeds both conspiracy theories and legitimate investigations. You’d think by now we’d be well past hand-wringing over hanging chads—the famous card fragments generated by the half-punched Votomatic ballots in the contested presidential election of 2000. But distrust of voting machines is alive and well on this Election Day, 2012.

It seems, it fact, that we may never fully trust the machines. Which puts a certain gnawing discomfort at the center of this day.

For weeks, while early voters have been at the polls, conservative blogs like Poor Richard’s News and American Thinker have cited local news reports in North Carolina and Ohio that touchscreen votes for Romney were changed several times to votes for Obama (before the Romney vote finally registered). Selwyn Duke at American Thinker asks, rightly, whether this wonkiness ever affects ATMs and Apple devices. As Duke put it, raising the specter of partisan tampering, “Have you ever, anytime, anywhere, had one of these electronic devices switch data input on you? So how is it that in our high-tech universe of flawlessly functioning electronic gadgets, voting machines are the only ones prone to human-like ‘error’?”

Voters at the polls are not, strictly speaking, communicating with government. They’re interacting with machines. And machines—in the age of pocket telephones so cerebral that “smart” seems to understate it—have become like valets to gentlemen in the 17th century. They’re indispensable, entrusted with our deepest secrets and profoundly suspicious, all at once.

No wonder, then, that Democrats, too, fear the devious machinations of voting machines. A rumor has persisted throughout the election season in blogs like Truth-out.org and the e-book “Will the GOP Steal America’s 2012 Election?” that the Romney family doesn’t just meddle with voting machines in Ohio. It owns them.

There is no evidence that this is true. But if you’re inclined to pull the thread of this ominous charge—which means revisiting the elections of 2000 and 2004, and immersing yourself in the relationship of Ohio’s former Secretary of State, Diebold software, a mysterious plane crash, Karl Rove and the Bush family—by all means, go Oliver Stone on it.

You get to listen to the doublespeak of Mark Radke, the onetime marketing director for Diebold, whose Draculan physiognomy makes him perfectly cast as a silent-movie fiend. You get to find out about Ohio-based companies like GovTech, an independent contractor that counted Ohio’s 2004 votes in the Old Pioneer Bank Building in Chattanooga, Tenn. And you get to surrender, once and for all, to the fact that all electronic voting machines are riggable.

On the other hand, FactCheck.org put to rest the exciting rumor of Romney-owned Ohio machines last week: “A spokesman for Tagg Romney’s private equity firm states that it has no stake in Hart InterCivic, a supplier of voting machines in two of Ohio’s 88 counties.”

I guess this puts the rumor to rest. But, like all efforts to silence conspiracy freaks, this raises new questions. Hart InterCivic?! This company sounds just like the hideous Diebold AccuVote 2000—way too Marvel Comics. And privatized. And why do different suppliers serve different counties? And why are votes for Ohio counted in Tennessee? And why do private equity firms owned by political families have even a chance to have stakes in voting machine supply companies?

The tangled chain of vulnerable voting machines suggests that the nuts and bolts of voting are something that, like emergency relief, might be better managed if it were centralized. Maybe private companies shouldn’t be in charge of the fundaments of American democracy.

On this Election Day, after the devastating storm that flattened and flooded the city I live in, the idea that government does some things better and more fairly than private enterprise seems self-evident. If it does to you, too, you know which way to vote. And if you’re holding out for privatization, you’ve got your guy too. Either way, triple-check that vote while you’re at the polls.

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