Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Mechanical Debate...

By the time you have read this post you have either voted, on your way to vote or not going to vote for the next president of the United States. If you have voted, depending where you are you would have done either by arduous paper Ballots ( numerous small counties Maine and Vermont) , good old Mechanical Lever Machines (State of New York) and notorious punch cards(well only a few counties in Idaho). However most states have upgraded to fancy Touch-screen machines. 9 million voters are going to be using brand new unverified electronic equipment that was updated only in March of this year. Many states and counties purchased direct-recording electronic (DRE) machines.
So here comes the debate... Mechanical vs Electronic. Sounds a little like the luxury watch debate, but unlike luxury mechanical watches which pulled through the "quartz scare" of the 1970's when quartz watches almost extinguished mechanical watches, the trusty Mechanical Hand Lever voting machines of the 1960's may not survive the new electronic voting systems.
The Mechanical Lever Voting Machine was used when JFK beat Richard M. Nixon by 0.1% where over half of the 56 million voters cast their ballots with this method. The Mechanical Lever Voting Machine has an array of levers in the front of the machine, each candidate is assigned a particular lever which is marked with the candidates name by a strip of paper. The levers are Horizontal in the unvoted position. The entire machine is situated inside a privacy curtain. The voter pulls down the lever and exits the curtain, the lever automatically returns to its horizontal position. As the lever returns, a connected counter wheel turns one-tenth of a full rotation, the tens counter drives a hundreds counter. At the end of election day, the counter for that lever indicated the amount of votes cast for that ballot. If the Mechanical Lever Voting Machine is in good working condition, it is quite reliable in that the machine is simple and a voter will have less of a chance of "pulling the lever in error" than touching a screen. However these machines are no longer being manufactured and only New York State currently uses them. Most states have opted for the newer more efficient electronic touch screens or direct recording electronic machines (similiar to ATM).

While many election officials rushed to embrace the new voting technology, specially those that were subjected to peering at Chads from punch card ballots, many people are skeptical of the security and the reliability of the electronic systems. Many of the electronic systems are unverified. In West Virginia, Colorado, Tennessee and Texas voters have reported the touch screen machines registered their vote for the wrong party or candidate. Some say the electronic systems may be susceptible to hackers. Many electronic machines do not produce a hard copy of the votes cast making it almost impossible to verify disputed results. Some touch-screen equipment used in half of Ohio's 88 counties "dropped" votes in recent election when memory cards were uploaded to computer servers. Others say these electronic machines can be easily manipulated.

It is going to be an interesting Election and in light of this post, I hope that the voting goes well with as few hitches as possible. The good old Mechanical relics will still be in use in New York State, counters counting as they have done for the past 115 years.

By: R Van Halem