Sunday, January 06, 2008

There are many excellent blog posts on today's New York Times magazine article by Clive Thompson on voting machines. Steve Bellovin has some great comments, as does Dan Wallach. I particularly agree with Steve's comments that "the biggest problem with e-voting machines is ordinary buggy code". Or said another way, "never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity" (which Wikiquote attributes to Robert Hanlon, as Hanlon's Razor).

One thing the article briefly mentions is how poor the state certification process is. Mr. Thompson writes "The vast majority of states “certify” their machines as roadworthy. But since testing is extremely expensive, many states, particularly smaller ones, simply accept whatever passes through a federal lab." As I've discussed elsewhere in this blog, I had the opportunity to observe Kentucky's certification process, which is certainly consistent with this description.

Mr. Thompson then goes on to write "And while it’s true that state and local elections officials can generally keep a copy of the source code, critics say they rarely employ computer programmers sophisticated enough to understand it." This isn't entirely true - while there are some cases where the software is available to state and local officials, in many cases (in my experience), no one even asked for it, so it's not available. Of course the second part of Mr. Thompson's comments are absolutely true - very few states or localities would know what to do with the source code. (For the record - I don't think that's a bad thing. You don't need a brain surgeon on staff in every neighborhood clinic, and you don't need an expert in source code analysis in every state Board of Elections. This is an area where hired experts are better than trying to retain people on staff.)

I'd give Mr. Thompson and the New York Times a grade of A-. As all the blogs have described, he did a great job covering a complex subject, and made only a few oversights.

[Updated 07 Jan to correct the author of the Freedom To Tinker blog entry. (Thanks Dan!) As to whether it was Hanlon or Napoleon or someone else who first said "never attribute to malice ...", I'm going to stick with Wikiquotes, since there seems to be a lot of disagreement.]


Blogger DWallach said...

FYI, the Freedom to Tinker piece was written by Dan Wallach, not Ed Felten. Likewise, the "malice/incompetence" quote probably comes from Napoleon.

7:58 AM  

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