In my hometown of San Francisco, the accusations are flying: Our optical scanner voting machines have been "compromised," so the Secretary of State insisted all the ballots be hand counted, and the city is suing the voting machine company for breach of contract.
Here's my oversimplification of the problem. In the old days, voting machines were based on 1940s punch-card technology, which was standardized and reliable, and because politicians routinely bought votes anyway (think: Chicago cemeteries), no one worried much about how secure the machines or paper ballot boxes were.
Then computers came along, voting machine technology forked, and now there are multiple vendors hawking a variety of architectures to local authorities who have no clue how to evaluate them. Worse, the vendors tend to be small and political (they're selling to the government, after all), and routinely get dragged into scandals, leave gaping security holes in their systems, or otherwise lose their credibility.
As a solution, many people are looking toward open source voting software. The idea here is that nobody will be able to pull any cybervoting hanky-panky if everybody can scrutinize the code. I'm not so sure, because the voting machine code is not the only issue here. There's the entire back end of whatever system is going to aggregate the votes. There's the authentication issue -- many states legally can't require even a picture ID to vote (because it constitutes a "poll tax"), much less two-factor authentication. And also, how do we expect to get any consistency across the country with an open source system?
I've got a better idea: Let's outsource this whole mess to SAP, the most efficient, standardized, and unbreakable (apologies to Larry Ellison) software vendor in the world. If they can make Corporate America's core transactional systems run like a well-oiled machine, surely they could make this problem go away in a jiffy. Moreover, they're too big to stoop to the petty politics of the current vendors.
Entrust our democracy to a German company? Actually, since World War II, they've taken the whole concept of civil liberties a lot more seriously than we do. And most major U.S. government agencies run SAP anyway, so this cow has left the barn.
Let's nail this voting machine technology issue so that we can focus on the real voting problem: the fact that only 20 percent of us vote (and only 20 percent of those wear the "I voted" sticker).
To get this column delivered to your e-mail inbox every week, sign up here.