Voter ID and e-voting technology

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling onvoter ID high-lighted one of the many twisted issues in election policy. But combine that twistiness with the use of tech for e-voting, and you get some possibilities that are positively torqued — and OBTW make another case for open source tech in elections. Here’s how.

First, the NY Times article is fine coverage of the Supeme’s review of the Indiana voter ID law, and for more detail on the twisty bits, you can dive into the briefs for the court case provided online by the Brennan Center. Several briefs address the claim that for those people who don’t currently have state voter ID in Indiana would have undue burdens placed upon them to obtain voter ID. And yes, there are plenty enough eligible voters in this situation to skew the result of a non-razor-thing margin of victory in a content.

Some examples showed non trivial expenses that would be a hardship for fixed-income folks, which seemed a bit reminiscent of the old poll-tax technique of dis-enfranchisement. Another example was a case where a name change– as a result of getting married at a date unfortunately close to an election– barred a woman from voting. But the blue ribbon goes this one: Indiana requires a birth certificatein order to get the state ID that is required for voting; and some other states require a photo ID as a pre-req for getting a copy of your birth certificate! So if you live in Indiana but were born in (for example) Georgia, you are in a catch-22.

Now, let’s pile on some technology and see what happens. While the voter ID debate is going on, states are also moving to create state-wide voter registration database systems. In states with voter ID requirements, that VR DB would cross-index with the DMV and other state authorities that issue ID. And the VR DB data drives the information in the poll books that say who is allowed to vote in what precinct, what name and address they have to prove, etc. The court briefs above describe some human-world situations in which people are barred from voting because of some boundary conditions of the rules. Now imagine all those rules getting implemented in voter registration systems at the state and county level, and coded into electronic pollbooks at the precinct level. You go to the polls and a poll worker says that "the computer says" that you’re not allowed to vote.

Maybe I am over-imaginative, but that sounds scary to me. Would we really expect people to trust the computers with the decision about whether you’re allowed to vote? This would be yet another case of suspicion of the computers just having it wrong (like the glitches of voting machines we’ve seen so much of), or even being used to automate nefarious attempts at disenfranchisement that otherwise would require collusion of many people.

If that’s where we’re headed, then the tech used in these scenarios should be open and held in the public trust, to help defuse or avoid yet another nexus of suspicion and doubt about elections, magnified by doubt in technology.

More work for OSDV? You bet! Anybody know some public-spirited DB engineers? Have we got a proposal for you … !


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