Readers analyze the merits of Farhad Manjoo's "Voting Into the Void" and Scott Rosenberg's "Money Talks, Microsoft Walks"

By Salon Staff
Published November 8, 2002 10:30PM (UTC)
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Farhad Manjoo is absolutely right: You can't recount a database. The paper trail is a necessity, and without it, you're just begging people like Jeb Bush to commit vote fraud.

Canada uses paper ballots and hand counts, and they have their election returns done in an evening. Why not do the same here?

-- Tamara Baker

There's no question that an all-electronic system is never going to be tamper-proof, but no other system is either. I have considerable experience in optical mark recognition software, and if that was completely reliable we wouldn't have a large staff to resolve errors and unreadable documents. They should definitely produce a paper receipt and it should be open-source software so the process can be independently audited, but throwing elections is nothing new and doesn't require electronics. Think about how many ATM transactions happen every day! You're more likely to be bit by a hyena than get an extra $40k when you asked for $100.

-- Bob Lewis

OK, so maybe it's just because I'm a common-sense Canadian, but it seems to me there's a very simple solution to all of your voting machine problems:


If it's all about voter intention and making every vote count, there's nothing better for it. It's cheap and easy! Sure, some governments will try to skew it (in one notable election here in my home province of Quebec, the government tried to tell us that only certain kinds of markings -- inside a white circle on a black piece of paper -- were acceptable) -- but come on. It's direct! It's transparent! It's like coloring! It's PAPER AND PENCIL!

-- Patrick Goddard

Farhad Manjoo's article on the current problems with touch-screen voting made some very good points about the problems of current touch-screen systems. However, they can be corrected, by changing the system so that it is standardized (so that no one company becomes a central point of failure), and verifiable at every step. Here's how:

1) All voting machines should be required to print out the voters' balloting choices on paper. This printout should be easy to read, both by a human and by a computer. That way, the voter (and election officials) can easily verify that votes were cast as intended. A computer-friendly font (like those currently used on many personal checks) and a strictly defined layout should be sufficient.

2) The printout is then taken by the voter to a second machine for tallying. Because the printout's format is strictly defined, the tallying machine need not be made by the same company as the vote-casting machine. Indeed, it probably shouldn't be, since this would cut down the possibility of a single company tampering with the election results.

Once we have a system where no single company is "trusted" to handle votes correctly, and where (as a last resort), voters and election officials can always verify results "by eye," it will be much harder to tamper with the results.

-- Jeremy Friesner

The fear and doom of the voting machine piece should be focusing on the shoddy design of particular voting systems and not make a blanket indictment of electronic voting.

We sell touch screen computer systems for retail, exhibits and a host of other projects that require a high level of reliability and accuracy.

The simple solution is to have the completed ballot printed out on security paper stock after a person casts their vote. There would be two copies. One for the voter to keep and to confirm their votes, the other to sign and to submit into a standard ballot box.

The voter knows immediately that they have had their vote counted as they wish.

If there is a challenge to the electronic tally, then the hard copy ballots are available for an accurate, supervised recount.

You would not use an ATM without a receipt, why would you vote without one either?

-- Mitch Krayton

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Mr. Rosenberg, like many others, seems to believe that competition is always in the public interest -- he mentions the "innovation, potential productivity and profits [of] a more freely competitive marketplace." This is not necessarily the case.

An example is the videotape-format battle between Betamax and VHS. I think Mr. Rosenberg will agree that the competition in this market did not help consumers. Faced with a choice between two incompatible formats, consumers and movie studios could either commit to one format and risk losing their investment if the other eventually won, or wait to see which proved more popular and thus deprive themselves of the immediate benefits of the technology. Couldn't the two formats coexist? Perhaps, but to no one's benefit. Movie studios would incur greater expense in releasing content on both formats. Video retailers and renters would have to stock fewer titles, or else expand their shelf space. Consumers would face confusion and frustration in trying to obtain the title they wanted in the appropriate format, or would have to buy two VCRs.

The operating-system market is similar. Suppose the market were evenly divided between Windows and, say, Linux. Software and hardware vendors could support both platforms, but this would consume resources that could otherwise be used to improve their products or introduce new products. Or they could choose one platform and forgo profits from half the market. In either case, consumers lose. Either they have a product that is supported on both platforms but lacks some functionality, or they must buy and maintain both operating systems to be sure of being able to run the product they want.

In an ideal world, a standards body such as ANSI or ISO would define the services and interfaces that the operating system provides, revising the definitions periodically as necessary to support new technologies. Then multiple vendors could compete to provide the defined services on the basis of price, performance, reliability, quality of support, and so on. Something like this is happening with Java, but Sun Microsystems controls the specification and provides a free implementation, removing the incentive for others to compete.

-- John Velonis

Nothing gets my Rant Generator going faster than someone using the words "innovate" and "Microsoft" in the same sentence. Their whole defense, such as it was, in the antitrust trial was that they need to be free to "innovate."

Well, let's see some innovation then. There is not one single Microsoft product -- not one -- that they "innovated." Everything they sell was copied, bought, or stolen from someone else. All of it, right back to MS/DOS.

The best you can say for them is that they take other people's ideas and then tinker with them, something we used to make fun of the Japanese for doing. Except that the Japanese made things smaller, better and cheaper. Microsoft consistently makes them bigger, slower and worse.

They claim that next year they will spend $5 billion on R&D. For that much money, they should be able to give us eternal life -- but instead, we're going to get more repackaging of other people's work.

-- Craig Zerouni

Scott Rosenberg did not mention Linux in his article. How can Microsoft possibly stop the incursion of Linux onto the desktop without violating the courts' restrictions? Whatever it did would be immediately detected and set off a firestorm.

-- William Freivogel

Salon and Scott Rosenberg clearly have no clue about what constitutes a monopolistic practice. Netscape gave away its browser until it captured 90 percent of the market, and then it tried to charge for that browser. This act was the most flagrantly monopolistic action in the history of computers, but you conveniently forget. Frankly, if it weren't for Microsoft, we would all be paying for browsers today.

Microsoft increased its market share with IE partly by hard-ass practices but mostly because Netscape hasn't been fully W3C compliant since the standards came out and is, by comparison with IE, a fairly pathetic browser.

How about some facts instead of knee-jerk Microsoft bashing. There are thousands of articles worth of warts on the open source movement, but we never see that on Salon. I guess diversity of views doesn't apply to software.

BTW, I don't work for MS, don't own any of their stock, and I use Opera.

-- Darrell Zink

I'm a small-business man who has been forced by Microsoft "updates" and "upgrades" to abandon many fine software titles that were forced out of business due to incompatibilities that Microsoft inflicted upon us. What better way to put your competitors out of business than to release a new and improved version of an operating system, force the hardware people to use it, and not let any competitor see the software until you have put out your product? Oh, and make sure your products work with the new system, but fun little items in there that cause problems for your competitors while they're scrambling to fix the mess of an operating system you forced them to adapt to? Bug fixes and down time have cost me many hours of time and lack of sleep. I own three legal versions of Win95, because they never fixed the first one, two versions of 98. What a piece of garbage! Windows 98 was just an attempt to fix 95. If the judges are too stupid to see what Microsoft has done, I hope there's a God in Heaven, Gates and his staff will come back as leaches in a polluted river that's on fire.

-- Bert Wilson

Salon Staff

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