India has electronic voting; why can't the U.S.?

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Sept. 29 2004 8:17 AM

The Bombay Ballot

What the U.S. can learn from India's electronic voting machines.

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So, might the Indian way work in the United States? Yes and no. The Indian machines are not designed to handle the large number of candidates that appear on a typical U.S. ballot, though this could be fixed without too much difficulty.

There's another hurdle, what Carnegie Mellon professor Michael Shamos calls "technological chauvinism."

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"Except for Japanese cameras and German cars, we believe there's nothing high-tech made outside the U.S. that's worth importing," he says. Certainly not from an impoverished nation like India. True, given the rise of the Indian software industry, that prejudice may be waning, but any American politician who suggested adopting Indian voting machines would probably be accused of outsourcing our democracy.

Also, the Indian machines are far from perfect. They don't provide a "paper trail," which some computer-voting experts consider essential. (Many American e-voting machines, too, fail to provide a paper trail.) The Indian machines malfunctioned at 1,800 voting booths (out of 1 million), and voters needed to cast their ballots again. There was still violence in the electronic election, though far less than in previous ones.

India's Supreme Court chose not to rule on a complaint filed by a computer scientist, concerned that the machines were not as "tamper-proof" as the government claimed. One critic, Frederick Noronha, worries that the government-run companies that manufacture the voting machines refuse to make the source code publicly available. "Abuse is possible merely because nobody quite understands how they work, apart from a handful of officials," says Nornonha.

A voting system, whether Indian or American, is only as honest as the officials running it. In other words, computers don't kill elections. People do. A well-designed machine can only minimize the chances for cheating, not eliminate them.

So, we seek solace in layer upon layer of technology. The problem is that each layer creates unintended consequences, plugging one hole but creating several new ones.

For whatever reason—frugality or backwardness or desire for simplicity—India has concluded that the solution is less technology, not more. Or, as the Russians might put it: Why build a million-dollar pen when a pencil will do?

Correction, Oct. 11, 2004: The article originally claimed that Indians used to vote by pressing an ink-stained thumb onto a paper ballot. In fact, Indians voted by rubber-stamping a paper ballot. They pressed their ink-stained thumbs onto the ballot in order to prevent voter fraud. ( Return to the corrected sentence.) 

Eric Weiner is author of the forthcoming book The Geography of Bliss, to be published in 2008.