At last, at last, ten years after the rest of the country began using new voting machines, New York state has entered the 21st century. Yesterday’s primary election was the first one using optical scan voting machines. Of the existing methods and machines, this is the best one as it combines both a physical ballot and mechanical scanning to avoid miscounts and election chicanery.
Of course, things didn’t go smoothly yesterday morning in lots of voting places – this is New York State, after all, where patronage still rules. But none of these contretemps, that really amount to a lack of training and preparation, are important in the long run.
What is important is that there are two major drawbacks to this system. The first is that the company, Election Systems and Software (one of only two in the country currently making voting machines, got the keys to the castle in their multimillion dollar contract with New York State. The company uses proprietary software in their machines. They are a for profit entity, after all, and the software is their commerce. But it’s not the state’s commerce, and by allowing a company to control the software, rather than make it open and open source, the state is at the mercy of the company’s process. Open, verifiable software should be a cornerstone of any voting machinery.
The second is the process of filling out the ballot itself. I first noted the discomfort I felt watching a voter mark her ballot at a fairly open table, walk it across the room and work with an election official to feed it into the scanner in 2007 while visiting San Francisco during the primary election there. It was uncomfortable to watch the election official, with good intentions, probably, help voters there handle their ballots. And it was uncomfortable doing the same yesterday. I did not hand my ballot to the election worker, however, she clearly saw my vote. If I was inclined to make a radical or unpopular choice, it would certainly be tempered by this process. I find this lack of a true, secret ballot appalling.
I have long held that Internet voting is inevitable. We have a crisis in finding and training poll workers, and even I, an ardent voter, forgot that it was primary day until 6 pm. Wouldn’t it be great to get an email reminder of an election, be able to surf the web while voting to learn more about the candidates (ha, they’d probably hate that!) quickly, conveniently from your laptop or iPad or at the library? We’ll get there, slowly, inevitably, ungracefully.