Escape from voting machine Hell

As the US presidential election finally arrives, we're hip deep in horror stories about voting machines run amok.

One day, just one more day, and it will all be over.

I'm talking about the US election, of course. (And if you just said to yourself, "What election?", please hold still while I smack you with this sock full of manure.)

Today's hot topic is voting machines. It seems the doyenne of daytime TV, Oprah Winfrey, voted early in Chicago last week and ran smack into a touch-screen voting machine that didn't want to cooperate. She pressed the screen next to You Know Who's name, but nothing happened. One can only imagine the theatrics that ensued in the polling station, but you can watch a video of the world's wealthiest entertainer describing it here.

My point: If it can happen to L'Oprah, it can happen to you. Heck, it even happened to Homer Simpson.

Votes have been flipping like pancakes on electronic voting machines in Colorado, West Virginia, Texas, and Tennessee, among other places. When voters press the touch screen, it either doesn't record their choice (a la Oprah) or it records it for the wrong candidate. And in most cases there's no paper trail, which means there's no way to verify the machine accurately recorded your vote, even if it displayed correctly on screen.

It's not just tree-hugging, tin-foil-hat-wearing Probama voters who've had this problem. In Tennessee, three voters complained their McCain votes were being recorded for The One. Several states have responded by decertifying machines and going back to paper ballots, but more than a third of the US will vote using one of these gizmos. E-voting experts are keeping a watchful eye on several states, including Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

That doesn't mean there's a vast conspiracy and the fix is in. It may be user error, combined with a badly designed GUI, badly calibrated machine, and/or buggy code. Regular readers of this column will be extremely familiar with those kinds of problems.

The Brad Blog, which eats this kind of stuff for breakfast, has compiled some handy tips if you see your votes being flipped or encounter other gremlins living inside an electronic voting machine.

Brad Friedman (aka the Brad blog) also suggests we use a mobile phone camera to capture video of anything irregular and upload it to VideoTheVote or YouTube. I'm not sure how much the blue-haired ladies overseeing the election in my precinct will like that, but hey, it's a free country. At least, for the time being. You can help keep it that way by voting.

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Robert X. Cringely

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