Voting positivity

Friday, February 1st, 2008

I was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I graduated. The columns I wrote are still up on the web archive, but I’d rather not depend on The Diamondback to host them indefinitely. Thus, I have decided to repost them on this blog, not only to archive them in a place under my control, but also so the readers here can get a glimpse of my writing from college. Here is the seventh of my opinion columns, Voting positivity, originally published September 22, 2006.

Student voter turnout continues to disappoint at Maryland. Despite having a student body of more than 30,000, only a few dozen showed up to vote in last week’s primary election. What a dismal situation – we should all just give up hope and flounder in an ocean of student apathy, right? Luckily, not only is the situation not nearly as bad as it appears, but there’s also one simple thing that can be done to drastically improve student involvement in the election process.

Last week, I drove my sister back to our parents’ home in Montgomery County to vote in the primary election. The simple fact is, like my sister and me, most students are still registered to vote where their parents’ home is, and there are more students who either return home to vote or use absentee ballots than those who bother to re-register in College Park to vote in Stamp Student Union. Registering to vote is an inconvenience; it’s something most students do only once, like getting their driver’s license in high school. It’s certainly not something you want to do over and over, especially if your on-campus address has changed at least once every year like mine. But my home address has stayed the same for much longer, so I never bothered to re-register.

So the situation isn’t nearly as bad as the Student Union numbers might indicate. Of course, most students are voting in their scattered home districts rather than having a unified voice in College Park, but there’s something to be said for having student views represented everywhere. And some of our most important votes on student issues, like who becomes the next governor, can be made from anywhere in the state. Students have noticed in-state tuition has increased by an unprecedented 72 percent during Ehrlich’s term, and no matter where in Maryland they end up voting in these upcoming November elections, they are going to make their anger at his utter disdain for higher education heard.

There is a lot of room for improvement in student involvement in elections. When I went home to vote I was struck by how old all of the volunteer election officials were. With the exception of one college student, they were all sixty or older. And it showed. None of them were enthusiastic about the democratic process, and they also exhibited some startling technical incompetence.

My polling station was equipped with Diebold Electionstealer 5000 electronic voting machines. It also had a battery backup unit that theoretically would have kept the machines running in the event of a power outage. Now, they didn’t do anything so stupid as forget to plug in the battery backup; rather, they plugged all of the voting machines directly into the wall, thus bypassing the battery backup entirely (the law of conservation of stupidity is applicable here). We’re just lucky the “only” voting snafu was merely that all of the polling locations opened an hour late because no one remembered to send the voting cards to the polls. But hey, at least they sent out those battery backups.

I wasn’t able to get the name of the college student helping to run that polling station, but I sure would have liked to thank her. We need more young faces at the polls. That is what, more than anything else, would get more students involved in democracy. If you went to the polls and were greeted by people your age, perhaps even by people you knew, then it would be a much different and less alienating experience. Few things are more important in a democratic system than overseeing elections, and I would encourage students to take a more proactive role.

On a related note, both times I went back home to vote in the elections that year occurred during team meetings of my Gemstone project, and I ended up finding myself on the defensive after missing those meetings because I had gone home to vote. Hello? It’s my civic duty? Why weren’t you all out voting?

And I should point out that I rarely chose the titles of my columns (not that I didn’t have the opportunity), so I ended up getting saddled with dreck like “Voting positivity” that was chosen by editors.

Diebold to get out of the business of stealing elections?

Monday, March 5th, 2007

Diebold Inc. may be getting out of the election-stealing business. They’re starting to realize that their subsidiary, Diebold Election Systems, is giving them a really negative public image. Electronic voting machines are only a minor part of Diebold’s business; they make a lot more money on their ATMs, for instance. But it looks like the reputation for their terribly flawed voting machines is starting to rub off on the rest of the business. Would you buy an ATM for a company with a horrific track record in a similar product?

So Diebold is probably going to sell off its electronic voting subsidiary. I just hope they can’t find a buyer. Diebold’s e-voting products need to die, not simply be repackaged under another name. They’re so insecure that they represent a travesty to the entire electoral process. State after state is pulling the plug on their Diebold machines citing massive problems.

It’s really a pity, too. Electronic voting is the future of voting. It’s the next big thing. But because all of the big players are utterly incompetent (and possibly even working to ensure Republican victories), widespread e-voting with assurances of integrity in the United States is still a long ways off.

All your vote are belong to us

Thursday, January 25th, 2007

This bit of news is absolutely idiotic. Diebold, the largest manufacturer of electronic voting machines in the United States, uses a single master key for every voting machine they make. Wait, it gets worse. It’s not even a good key; it’s a standard low-security filing cabinet-type key, which can typically be picked in under ten seconds by someone who knows what they’re doing. The key guards access to the memory card. Get access to the memory card, and it can easily be swapped out for different votes, loaded up with a virus to throw off vote totals, etc.

But here’s the part where it gets downright criminally negligent. Diebold offers this key for sale on its online store to “authorized personnel”, but much, much worse, is that they included a picture of the actual key. Keys are very simple devices; the only thing that matters is their shape. Using just the image of the key on the website, a man successfully reproduced the key, which successfully opened a Diebold voting machine. So now you don’t even need to know how to pick locks to tamper with elections; simply make the key at home at your leisure, walk into the voting booth with a key and a replacement memory card, and within no more than ten seconds, an election can be stolen.

Do you feel safe about your Democracy now?