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Voter-befuddling tricks moving online

The forecast for November is stormy

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CFP 2008 The conundrum in anything to do with voting: the people who write the election laws are the ones who won the election. What motive do they have for changing the status quo?

Nearly eight years after the voting fiasco of the 2000 Presidential election, two disturbing US trends were highlighted at last week's Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference. First: a variety of deceptive practices designed to keep "the wrong sort" of people from voting are moving online. Second: the revamping of America's voting machines mandated by the Help America Vote Act in 2002 is a mess.

Nothing, said Rebecca Mercuri, a leading expert on security issues in electronic voting, has changed since CFP 1993, when the late Irwin Mann said that to be trustworthy any computerised voting system must use open protocols so that software and hardware can be publicly scrutinised and monitored. Though that alone is not sufficient, since you can never be sure the code will behave correctly on election day.

"Nothing about open source software makes it secure," she said.

More alarming to civil rights activists, however, are the deceptive practices that keep people from voting or spread misinformation and the threat these pose as they move online.

Lillie Coney, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, gave examples of what she called "intentionally incorrect information about the voting process", that is: "Stuff that misinforms voters and causes them to lose their right to vote."

In the past this has meant flyers, phone calls, and mailings telling people for example that to avoid overcrowding Republicans are to vote on Tuesday (election day) and Democrats on Wednesday (not election day). Or advertising that if you've ever been found guilty of anything, or voted in a recent election it's illegal to vote in this one – and if you do you will go to prison for ten years and lose your children. Or automated phone calls will tell selected groups of voters that their polling location has changed.

"New voters," she said, "are more susceptible to these kinds of tactics."

Even offline, the sources of these flyers and calls are hard to find. Online, think the Good Times Virus hoax and its ilk writ with real consequences. Jenigh Garrett, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, pointed to an email purporting to come from the TV star Bill Cosby's wife, Camille, warning that people would lose the right to vote in 2007. The email had, Garrett said, a distant tie to fact, in that in 2006 Congress held hearings on reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act. Things will only get worse with Real ID – the more rules there are the easier it is to spread rumours that convince people they've fallen foul of one of them.

"The injury that people don't vote is irredressable," said Garrett.

And this is all before you even get to the machine.

The reality, said Leslie Mara, who oversees elections in the state of Connecticut, is that electoral commissions find themselves picking the "least detrimental" solution. The deadlines of HAVA, she said, took no account of where the technology stood.

Expect a rocky November. ®

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