Diebold Debacle Signals Need for a Paper Trail

Opinion: Some say the company's and others' voting machines need to provide a paper trail that less-than-tech-savvy elections officials can understand when something goes wrong.

Its probably safe to say that very few of the precedents being set by voting-machine maker Diebold are going the way the company intended.

Last weeks ruling—that Diebold overstepped its ability to invoke the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to silence online criticism of its voting-machine technology—is just the latest misstep.

The ruling, handed down by a federal district court in San Jose, Calif., will resonate, says Jennifer Granick, executive director of the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society. "It should have an impact," she said.

David Bear, a Diebold spokesman, said the company is still reviewing the decision. He had no further comment on the court case.

Diebold had invoked copyright law—and the potentially harsh penalties its violators face—when it persuaded ISPs to shut down a site run by two Swarthmore College students. The students had posted memos about the companys technology, which Diebold claimed were copyrighted.

The district courts ruling, that Diebold misused the law to protect material that was not in fact protected, gives ISPs—and their customers—a way to challenge requests to deny access or shutter sites. "In this kind of case, a district court opinion can be very persuasive," Granick said.

But how exactly did it come to this? A voting-machine manufacturer getting hauled into court over copyright law?

Welcome, once again, to the intersection of politics and technology. It aint pretty.

Diebold has been criticized—most notably on Slashdot.orgs political venue—for everything from relying on Microsofts operating system to encouraging the re-election of President Bush.

All of the accusations may be true. But in the long run, theyre beside the point. Bear, the company spokesman, takes great pains to talk about how Diebold CEO Walden ODell has curtailed his political activity. And he responds cheerfully to criticism of Diebolds equipment, pointing out that much of the debate about how machines should operate and be used is up to the local officials. Ultimately, thats who runs elections.

"It isnt just a piece of equipment sitting in a room," Bear says, noting that voting machines are purchased, maintained and set up by local election officials. "No election is some rogue, nefarious person, sitting in the back of a room."

Maybe. But lots can and does go wrong every November. And until recently, not too many people really noticed.

/zimages/3/28571.gifAre Bushs policies good for tech workers? Click here to read more.

This year, for a variety of reasons, some tech-savvy folks are getting familiar with the daily grind of politics—its nuts, bolts, ballots and counting. Its a first look for many, and they are seeing how flawed the system is and always has been. "The more you look at it, the worse it gets," says Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation.

Next Page: Wheres the paper trail?