Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Is "Man of the Year" farfetched?

I recently got an email from my sister about the movie "Man of the Year" with Robin Williams. She asked whether the attack described in the movie could really happen. The premise of the movie is that a voting machine company throws the election through deliberate manipulation of the voting results. The details are incredibly unrealistic to anyone who understands technology (hint: programs aren't written based on the number of double letters in a name), but it all hinges on the notion that there's a single nation-wide provider of electronic voting machines that are controlled from a single site.

In some countries that's not entirely farfetched - for example, The Netherlands until very recently was using a single model of machines nationwide, and I think they had a central data gathering site. But in the US, an attack of this sort would be much more complicated. First of all, each of the 50 states (and other entities such as the District of Columbia and territories) have their own procurement, and don't buy equipment from the same vendors. Second, in many states, each locality (county and/or city) does their own programming of the voting machines and tallies the results themselves. So there is no central control point.

Or could there be? Some anti-DRE activists have been explicit that their goal is to put the DRE vendors out of business - most notably Diebold (now known as Premier Election Systems), but also Hart Intercivic, Sequoia, Election Sytems and Software, Advanced Voting Solutions, and others. What would happen if they are (mostly) successful? We might well end up with a single vendor of all voting systems, and then the obvious optimization is to have central operation of elections. This would save money and increase professionalism. But it could also open the door to exactly the type of problem discussed in the movie.

I don't think it's likely, but in the back of my mind I worry about pushing too hard to fix the problems, lest we make it impossible for anyone to meet our needs and drive the vendors out of business.

The moral of the story: be careful of what you wish for - you may get it. And in this case, what you get may be the movie plot coming true.


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