In Praise of Pencils

There is a story going round the internet of a meeting of American and Russian scientists during a thaw in the Cold War sometime in the 1970s, during which the engineers from NASA compared notes with their counterparts from the Soviet space program.

The Americans described how they had problems getting ballpoint pens to work in zero gravity but eventually, after several months and $12 million dollars of research, the engineers came up with a microscopic pump to force the ink to the nibs of the pens. How, the Americans wondered, had the Russians solved the same problem.

“We used pencils,” the Russians said.

There’s a simple point behind the story. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I was reminded of the story last week when the Taoiseach was asked about future plans for the dodgy voting machines the Government bought before the last election.

“We will go into the 21st century being the laughing stock with our stupid ould pencils,” he told the assembled journalists.

The thing about those stupid ould pencils is, they work.

When a voter enters the booth with a pencil in paper, he knows he is voting in secret.

When he marks the paper, the vote is verifiable. Its right there in front of his eyes, recorded in black and white.

When he casts his secret vote, it happens in public. Witnesses will see him drop the paper into the ballot box.

And from the moment the vote is cast until the moment its counted, the vote is secure. That ballot box is always protected, and no one can interfere with its contents.

Finally, the count is public. In addition to the returning officer and his staff, every candidate has the right to nominate observers (the tallymen) to ensure the vote is fair.

Computers can do none of those things. You have to take it on trust that your vote is secret. You have to take it on trust that your vote is recorded properly by the electronics. You have to take it on trust that your vote is secure. And the count isn’t public. It takes place inside a black box, where you can only hope the electronics do the right thing.

A bunch of hackers in Holland showed recently how easy it is to break into the voting machines. They were able to open the electronic boxes and replace the computer chip with a key that can be bought in any locksmith’s shop.

The electronic voting commission report last June said it couldn’t recommend the machines as things stand, but that the machines might be workable some day “subject to further work”. The commission noted diplomatically that the Government “may not realize the extent of the changes required.”

Electronic voting was tested in the 2002 general election. A freedom of information request showed 1294 more people who went into the polling booths in Dublin North in 2004 never had their votes recorded. We don’t know what happened to those votes. We will never know. Unlike a piece of paper marked with a pencil, an electronic vote leaves no trace. Meanwhile in Dublin West, the software apparently counted 716 votes from people who never voted!

So far, the voting machines have cost €40 million to buy, and €12 million to store. There’s no telling how much it might cost to fix them, if a fix is even possible. Joe McCarthy, the computer programmer whose warnings about the system were ignored before the government bought the system, says the total cost could run to over €110 million. Meanwhile, a pencil costs less than a euro.

Maybe someone should tell Bertie Ahern the story of the $12 million NASA space pen. After all it was the Russians, with their stupid ould pencils, who had the last laugh.