The Future of Voting Machines

In one of our nation’s narrowest and most derisive elections, the competition was fierce to say the least. Even before the vote began, rumors started circulating (as they often do) that the election would be rigged by one side or another, or maybe by Russia. Ground zero for this theft of the American democratic system could only be our aging fleet of voting machines, many of them ill-equipped to handle the workload of an early 2000s home computer. Many feared the the worse, that machines would register the wrong vote, or even worse, cease working altogether.

It can be said that, for at least one aspect of Election 2016, they were right. Voting machines across the country flipped votes, shut down, held people up for hours, reported gibberish, and generally glitched up in every conceivable way. But, with all these errors popping up around the nation, how was an election so close decided so quickly? Are the Russians playing games with our democratic system? Probably not, unless they are deliberately tying up the tech support hotline.

No one really believes the election system is perfect. Before electronic error, human error was just as prevalent and still plays a vital role today. One whole category of problems with “voting machines” this election were the direct result of operator malfunction. But why is noone up in arms about all the other reported problems? The short answer is, these problems are expected and do not represent a large enough portion of the vote in any precinct to swing the election the other way.

There is a major distinction here that should not be overlooked, and that is the difference between a voting machine being hacked and one that is just “malfunctioning.” A broken voting machine may cause havoc, but it is not necessarily the puppet of some nefarious watchman steering the vote one way or another. The thing about electronics is that they break. And when they’re old, they break more, especially during heavy use, which voting machines only get on special occasions.

Sometimes, when there’s smoke, there’s fire. Other times, there’s just a fried processor. The future of voting machines is much like its present: far from perfect but not yet problematic enough to be a matter of concern.

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