Posted at 08:31 AM ET, 07/24/2006

Signing Off

I intended to write this weeks ago. At the time, I couldn't figure out how to say it. Even now, the words still elude me -- but as with just about every pressing assignment throughout high school and college, it's way past due. I must bid you farewell, whether I can find the words or not.

I've started a new job with Washington Post Radio. It's a totally new area for me, requiring all my time and attention. And so I am putting The Debate to bed.

A nice, long nap sounds pretty good to me, too, actually. The Debate was always just a fraction of my job; most of my time was spent coordinating the hundreds of op-ed submissions sent to The Post each week, leaving only late night hours for the intensive research necessary in order to have an informed discussion the next day. I've been exhausted since mid-October -- right about the time the adrenaline that helped keep me awake for most of September started to fade.

I've often wondered why I never managed to recover fully from my September of Sleeplessness -- and later, The Vacation That Wasn't -- but after collecting the content of The Debate into one document, I think I understand. In standard 12-pt font, The Debate spans almost 9,000 pages; the month of March alone took up 1,600 pages. My posts, not counting comments, run 365 pages -- more than 125,000 words. Add in the nearly 16,000 comments and the word count easily tops 3 million.

That's 3 million (predominantly analytical, thoughtful, logical, and often eloquent) words exchanged in detailed discussions of some of the biggest quandaries facing our nation and our world. Three million words of Debate. It's humbling.

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Posted at 08:29 AM ET, 06/28/2006

One Vote Away From Limiting Freedom

It came so close to passing this time.

Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a sponsor of the flag desecration amendment, actually said this: "What we would be doing is sending a message to the [Supreme Court], you cannot usurp the power of the Congress of the United States."

Astonishing in its arrogance, isn't it? In striking down statutes prohibiting flag burning, the judicial branch did not alter the Constitution; it lived up to its duty to ensure that no one -- most especially the federal government -- violates the rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

The First Amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

By wasting time picking and choosing certain acts of free speech to condemn, Congress has again abdicated its responsibility to the people it serves -- including the veterans who fought valiantly to protect our freedoms. Congress belittles that contribution with its juvenile attempt to spite the Supreme Court and weaken the Bill of Rights.

Think every member of the Senate who voted in favor of this should be voted out at the earliest opportunity? Speak up. Think flag burning is an epidemic poised to bring our great country to its knees? Use your freedom of speech to say so.

But Congress's repeated attempts to prohibit flag burning use our flag in a much more sinister way -- as part of a politcial ploy. If any sort of flag desecration amendment should be passed, it should be to prevent the use of America's symbols of patriotism as tools to limit the very freedoms they represent.

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Posted at 11:50 PM ET, 06/22/2006

Data Insecurity and the Potential for Mischief

Watching local TV news this evening -- something I rarely do -- I was reminded again of how fickle technology can be.

We've recently learned that the personal information of 26,000 Department of Agriculture employees and contractors has been compromised. The Federal Trade Commission had some of its data nicked, too, but at least some humor could be found on that story: "Many of the people whose data were compromised were being investigated for possible fraud and identity theft."

Consider also the serious data security breaches in the Department of Veteran's Affairs, college campuses and private businesses. Just because personal data is more accessible now than it was 20 years ago doesn't mean everyone's running out to commit the crime, but it does make identity theft easier, and thus more prevalent.

Similarly, DRE technology makes vote fraud easier -- no stealing ballot boxes required -- just a couple minutes with a machine to insert a different memory card is all it takes.

As explained by the co-founders of VoterAction in a meeting at the Post, the rogue memory card transmits information that disables key security features, rendering the tampering untraceable. Even if the errors are caught and the machine is reformatted, a subtle change in the base programming remains, still capable of affecting the machine's tally.

Even assuming the risk of fraud is relatively low, why take the chance? The risk of vapors igniting in a jet's fuel tank is relatively low, too, but given that a device does exist that can better control the danger, wouldn't you rather fly on a plane equipped with the device?

Our votes play a far greater role in how we live and how we die. The leaders we choose determine the wars we fight, the healthcare we receive, and the laws governing everything from end-of-life decisions to vehicle safety standards. We cannot afford to be indifferent about safeguarding this most sacred of rights.

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Posted at 07:59 PM ET, 06/21/2006

Voting ABCs: Avoid Butterflies and Chads

When it comes to straightforward, reliable voting systems, I think my precinct back in Baltimore got it right: Next to each candidate's name on the ballot is an arrow with its middle missing. To vote, just draw a little line connecting the two halves of the arrow that points to your candidate.

That's all there is to it. It's a paper trail with no butterflies, no hanging chads, no Windows-esque crashes, glitches or security holes. (And yes, many DRE machines run on a Windows operating system.) Each vote can be read and counted in seconds by an optical scanner; should a recount prove necessary, each ballot is available and unambiguous.

Touch screens, like butterfly ballots, can be confounding to many seniors. Even though some people will be confused no matter what, the arrow design seems to be about as simple as a ballot can get.

Instead of spending large sums purchasing and maintaining computerized voting machines, would it make more sense for local and state governments to use optical scanner-based systems?

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Posted at 10:09 PM ET, 06/20/2006

A Vote for Accountability

I admire California's enthusiasm for voting. Some people find the whole ballot initiative process annoying, and perhaps they've got a point. But the process is also democratic: it helps keep the government accountable to the people, not to the access maestros who trade favors for influence over legislation and spending.

California's referendum-heavy system promotes good government. Does it always succeed? I daresay no. But it empowers people with a bigger role in making the decisions that affect their lives, and gives them a strong voice to keep their elected officials on task.

When it comes to safeguards on voting systems, California "took the lead." While Maryland's predominantly-Democratic state legislature brushed off the serious concerns raised about touchscreen voting, California toughened standards for voting machines, including requiring a paper trail.

As the California Secretary of State's office points out, still more checks are built into California's electoral system, including a mandatory 1% recount in every precinct. Given those checks, there's no reason to think that this particular election result was faulty. Cynical Emily adds: And with incumbents reelected at a rate of 98 percent, that one Congressional seat makes relatively little difference anyway.

In spite of what partisans on both sides might have you believe, the voting machine debate is not about who won or who lost a particular election -- it's about violating our national values of integrity and ethical behavior. We continue to condone this increased potential for fraud when we know full well that more secure systems exist.

This special election in California joins many previous votes that have had a shadow cast over them by the mere possibility that vote tampering could have occurred. (And that's without worrying about the shenanigans elsewhere, like the scrubbing of voter rolls -- listing innocent people as felons and declaring them ineligible to vote.)

It boggles the mind that anyone would argue against a paper trail -- shouldn't that be pretty innocuous? In this article, the author cites a California test in which 20 percent of the machines encountered problems -- at least 19 machines -- ten of which had printer problems. The article ignores those other nine machines (at least nine, as some of the printer problems may have been accompanied by additional errors as well.)

Think about that -- 10 percent of the sample encountered problems that had nothing to do with printing. Yes, paper is an expense. Paper, however, we can afford; what we cannot afford is to use voting systems in which errors could be occurring in significant numbers even as elections are routinely decided by a percent or two -- or even less.

Is a technology that requires so much effort just to stop tampering really the most expedient? Why should the American people trust such a system? How many more irregularities will it take before we decide that some things are better left done the old fashioned way?

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Posted at 04:15 PM ET, 06/14/2006

Sleepover in San Diego? reports that in the special election in California to replace Duke Cunningham, "volunteer pollworkers were allowed to take Diebold voting machines home as much as two weeks before the election." (I am currently waiting for a response to this report from California's elections board. I'll update the moment I have it. [Update: Secretary of State's office points to many statewide safeguards. See next entry for more details.])

Given the known security vulnerabilities and the concrete problems that fraud and/or malfunctions have caused [see pp. 9-15], how could this be allowed to happen?

Most distressing? The workers wouldn't even have had to take the machines home to tamper with them -- it's easy. Newsweek's Steven Levy explains the most recent, and most serious, security flaw:

It requires only a few minutes of pre-election access to a Diebold machine to open the machine and insert a PC card that, if it contained malicious code, could reprogram the machine to give control to the violator. The machine could go dead on Election Day or throw votes to the wrong candidate. Worse, it's even possible for such ballot-tampering software to trick authorized technicians into thinking that everything is working fine, an illusion you couldn't pull off with pre-electronic systems.

The Wall Street Journal quotes a Diebold spokesman as having this response to these outlandish security flaws: "Perfect shouldn't be the death of good."

Perhaps not. But good shouldn't be the death of infinitely better. Is it too much to ask that our election results be as tamper-proof as possible and verifiable on paper?

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Posted at 09:15 AM ET, 06/13/2006

This Week's Debate: Voting

It's primary day in Virginia.

Several years ago, as a Virginia-voting novice, I attempted to vote at the first polling place I happened across, assuming I would be assigned to the one closest to my home. They turned me away; as it happens, I actually have to walk past that polling place in order to get to my own.

This is minor annoyance. A major annoyance, however, is that my precinct uses touch screen voting machines with no paper trail. So every time I vote, I get an uneasy feeling that maybe -- just maybe -- my vote won't be counted properly.

The fact is, Direct Recording Electronic voting machines are by no means tamper-proof, and some of the horror stories make a voter wonder how it's possible that our legislators have not required a verifiable paper trail by now.

One explanation might be the campaign donations from the top e-voting companies. Go to the advanced search page on the FEC Web site and type in "Diebold" in the "Employer/Occupation" field. A few of the results don't appear to refer to Diebold the voting machine company, but most of that nearly $90,000 in contributions did come from the voting folks (and that doesn't count their associates), with the vast majority of that going to Republican candidates.

Frankly, I don't care which side the money was going to -- the fact that the management (and service technicians!) would be partisan enough to give thousands of dollars to either side is distressing enough.

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Posted at 11:50 AM ET, 06/ 9/2006

Zarqawi Is Out, But Will It Make a Difference?

I should point out that I heard the report about Bush addressing gay marriage on BBC World News, generally immune from the hype. It's about the only place (other than NPR) where you can get decent reporting on Timor.

They also do brilliant Iraq reporting, most recently on the skyrocketing sectarian violence. Did you know the number of bodies going through the Baghdad morgue has increased each month since January? Debaters, do you think Zarqawi's death will tame the insurgency?

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Posted at 11:40 AM ET, 06/ 9/2006

Is the Media Propping Up the Propaganda?

Debater Sully makes an excellent point. Sully agrees that the focus on gay marriage is just a successful bit of propaganda designed to distract us from what really matters. But he* rightly points out that media outlets are only serving to disseminate the propaganda "saying that they HAVE to cover it in detail since Congress is discussing it."

Granted, that's a silly justification. Congress talks about incredibly important things all the time, and plenty of it gets overlooked. In some cases, that's probably because the lawmakers manage to keep it in the shadows, but most because it seems impossible to explain it in a way that would be comprehensive yet not stupifyingly long and dull.

(I tend to think blogs -- and the Internet in general -- offer a key outlet for this sort of reporting and analysis.)

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Posted at 09:36 AM ET, 06/ 6/2006

Dr. Straightlove

or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the War on Marriage

Anyone else having flashbacks to last year's War on Christmas?

This race to rescue marriage bears an eerie resemblance to the compulsion politicians felt back in December to "protect" that poor, endangered holiday. (Why is it that politicians characterize a war as inexcusably destructive and call for its immediate end pretty much exclusively when no actual war of any sort is involved?)

In his 2004 State of the Union address, President Bush called marriage one of the "pillars of civilization." The very next month, he said marriage is "the most fundamental institution of civilization." He repeated those exact words again this week, causing a flurry of news stories (although none I saw mentioned that he's just recycling an old line.)

Although many disagree with the president, the idea is not completely irrational. What is irrational, however, is the idea that marriage is under a brutal attack it cannot possibly survive without the help of American politicians.

Debaters, you know I am a gigantic fan of the U.S. Constitution, but I don't see how enshrining something in even this venerable document could have much impact on an institution that has been fundamental to civilization for millennia. I do, however, see how codifying discrimination in our nation's highest law should be very obviously a step we do not wish to take.

Memo to election-year politickers: Marriage is not in any danger. Marriage, like Christmas, doesn't need your protection. It isn't going anywhere.

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Posted at 12:55 PM ET, 06/ 5/2006

Who's Responsible for Keeping the Peace?

Anna in Timor-Leste

This is Anna, one of many friends I made in East Timor earlier this year. She attended school. She spoke three languages. She and her friends walked around their neighborhood in Dili without worrying about violence or lawlessness.

Today, Anna is probably going hungry in a refugee camp, wanting nothing more than to be safe at home with her family. Finding food amid the chaos has become so difficult that some refugees have resorted to eating grass.

Who is responsible for restoring order? Who should step in to ensure Anna and her friends get to return home, return to school, return to being the carefree kids they should be?

Remember, Timor-Leste (the tiny country's official name) is not only the newest independent nation in the world, it's also one of the poorest. To expect it to fend for itself would be entirely unrealistic.

In yesterday's Outlook section, a piece offers a good background on the trouble in Timor, but the only real criticism it seems to make is of the Australian troops, whom the author argues left too soon after independence. Of course, the same criticism can be made of the United Nations.

In some cases, UN peacekeepers have such a limited mandate one wonders why they're there at all -- they are permitted to witness and report the violence but powerless to intervene. It's entirely possible that a stronger mandate could have stopped -- or at least lessened -- the genocide in Rwanda.

Must peacekeepers have the power to use violent means to stop violence, even if the peacekeepers themselves are not being attacked? In situations like the current one in Timor, should the United Nations come to the rescue? [Update 6/10/6: Timor's lessons for U.N. peacekeeping.]

Or is it up to the neighbors? What about in conflicts where the neighbors are ill-equipped -- materially and politically -- to do any real good? (I'm looking at you, Darfur.)

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