Florida: A Tale of Two Recounts, With Millions Excluded
Florida recounts are excluding millions of voters. At this writing, there are two recounts underway in Florida: not the Senator and Governor contest recounts, but two different recount processes for both; two different types of counties; and two different types of voters. One kind of recount has been covered well in the media: a 0.5% margin and machine re-scans of paper ballots, and a 0.25% margin and hand counts of paper ballots. The other kind of recount is, at worst, a sham, and at best consists of efforts of local election officials doing what they can for voters not fortunate enough to cast a paper ballot.
Let’s start with the two types of counties: those that still use paperless voting machines like Miami-Dade with nearly 3 million of Florida’s 16+ million people; and counties like Escambia, Broward, and Okaloosa where on Election Day voters mark paper ballots that are counted by optical scanners and software.
Voter Protection: Humans Fill Software Gaps
For those all-paper-ballot counties, the recount process sounds like a good way to protect voters from machine errors. All the paper ballots are counted normally, but if the margin in a contest is less than 0.25%, it is time to bring in the people to do the fine tuning, and find votes that the software might have missed. Let’s use the Senate contest of Scott vs. Nelson to illustrate.
One kind of missed vote is an over-vote. For one paper ballot, the software may have noticed an emphatic and clear mark for Scott, but also some ink that appears to be a mark for Nelson. In that case, the software will record an over-vote, a case where more than one mark was detected, and as a result, no vote is recorded for any candidate. But in a human review, the ballot counter may consult Florida election law, scrutinize the ballot, and decide that the ink near Nelson’s name doesn’t rise to the level of a legal mark. The result: a vote for Scott where the software recorded no vote.
Another kind of missed vote is an under-vote. The software looked for a mark next to Scott and next to Nelson, but found none. A human review might agree that there is no indication of a vote for Scott, but a wobbly circle about the bubble for Nelson does match what state election law says is a mark that qualifies as a vote. The result: a vote for Nelson where the software recorded no vote.
This sounds great! We use software to do a first-approximation of what human counters would do, applied to a large number of ballots, but if the count is close, we bring in people to apply their brain-power to every ballot, to make sure that every voter’s every vote was properly recorded. Voters are protected from software misinterpretation of ballot marks that, in aggregate, could award a contest to the wrong candidate.
Unequal Protection: Digital “Re-Count”
But in the counties with election-day paperless voting, the story is not so encouraging. In Miami-Dade for example, a voter stands in front of a 12-year old machine, manufactured from 16-year old parts, quaintly called an “iVotronic”. They look at a screen version of the same things that a paper ballot voter saw, indicate their choices, confirm their choices, and — poof! Their ballot disappears in a puff of logic, and their votes are added to vote totals stored as data in this antique computer.
The same misfortune happens to other voters using that same machine, and eventually all those vote tallies are copied from the iVotronic to a central system, combined with other iVotronic votes, and also the votes recorded by scanning paper absentee ballots.
At recount-time, the absentee paper ballots go through the same process of re-scan and hand-count. But those paperless voters? What protection do they get? None. The iVotronic may have incorrectly recorded a voter’s choices, but we’ll never know. For these voters, there is no human correction of software errors.
Digital Re-Count: Anything Learned?
But more than unequal protection, the paperless voting machine “recount” process is even more weird. Humans re-do the process of getting the vote tally data off of the machines, and adding up all the tallies. We’d expect the totals to be the same. But what if they are different? Would that mean that some votes were erased or some added? Or perhaps the initial data off-loading process had some human error or technical glitch, and the new, different totals are the correct ones. How could we know which is the case?
The answer is: we can’t. Too many paperless voting machines, too many people with access to them, no way for a county election official to swear in Court that every single one was completely controlled with no chance for any tampering, not even the completely invisible kind with a person carrying one of the machines, while having a good sized magnet in a pocket to scramble some of the data.
The End Result: Faith-Based Paperless Recounts
When the recounts are done, our hats off to the hard-working local election officials who will have dutifully ground through the process, and refined the vote totals to correct for perhaps a few thousand cases of software misinterpretations that might have affected the election result. And off to the side, millions of paperless votes with no way knowing if the software recorded the votes correctly, or if the digitally stored votes were protected from modification.
As a result, at the beginning of recount process, our confidence in the election results was only as good as our confidence in antique paperless voting machines’ correct operation for millions of voters. After the recount, and after the human correction of hundreds or perhaps thousands of votes, we still have the same millions of paperless votes, and the same confidence that the election results are only as good as our confidence in the paperless voting machines.
From there, we will still have to take the election results on faith, and add some additional faith that Florida will finally jettison all the paperless voting machines, and use a simpler, more cost-effective, easier-to-protect method of counting paper ballots and routinely having humans cross-check the totals in case of computer error.
— John Sebes
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How to use PollWatch (See Say 2018) to report issues at your polling location
For the US 2018 midterm elections, OSET Institute’s TrustTheVote Project will have an embedded team of election technology and voting process experts working with NBC News and MSNBC. Three members of that team will also be serving as on-air analysts. In addition to providing in-depth analysis to the NBC News audience, the TrustTheVote Project team will monitor all of the information from the PollWatch program.
What should I do if there’s a problem at my polling location?
If you encounter any problem at your polling location, the problem resolution should start in the polling place. For example: there should always be a way to cast a paper provisional ballot.
If, however, you can’t resolve the issue at the polling place, you can report the problem with your smart phone:
- Call 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683) to report your issue.
- Open the PollWatch link (https://bit.ly/seesay2018) on your smart phone to post a detailed report.
From there, the TrustTheVote Project team will ensure your report will be published on a national map and, if verifiable, reported on NBC News. With your help, we can all work together to hold polling locations accountable to you, the voter.
If you open the PollWatch link, https://bit.ly/seesay2018, on your mobile device, a new page opens in your default browser. Important: this link will not download an app! PollWatch is a web page, not a mobile app, so there’s no need to install anything on your device. You can also use PollWatch on a desktop or notebook computer. Just click or tap on this link: https://bit.ly/seesay2018
Describe the problem
Once you open the PollWatch link, https://bit.ly/seesay2018, you can describe the nature of the problem.
- Select the best description of the type of problem you’re experiencing using the drop-down menu.
- Enter a brief description of the problem, up to 400 characters, the about the same as two long tweets.
Tip: many smartphones will let you dictate your description if you tap the microphone icon on your keyboard.
Enter the location of your polling place
All the problems reported by PollWatch will be organized by location. Please be sure to enter the correct location of the polling place, even if the polling place is closed or has been moved (this is one of the problem types you can select, above).
To select your location, scroll down and tap (or click) on the map.
Once you tap on the map, you can enter the address of the polling place. If you don’t know the exact street address, start with the zip code.
- Move the map around under the map pin to point to the exact location. You can move the map on your mobile device by dragging your finger over the map itself.
- Pinch your fingers together on the map to zoom in.
- Spread your fingers apart to zoom out.
- Or, use the “+” and “-” buttons to zoom in and out.
- Tap the Home icon (a little house) to start over.
Once you’ve located your polling location, and positioned it under the blue map pin, tap the OK link in the upper right corner. Important: be sure to tap the OK button in the upper right. If you tap the Back button (<) in the upper left, you won’t save the location of your polling place.
Enter the problem severity and your contact information
If several people report the same problem, or if reporters can verify the problem you describe at the polling location, the issue may be reported on NBC News.
- Select the severity level of the problem from the menu labeled How severe is the problem?
- Enter your name (required)
- Enter your mobile phone number (required)
- Enter your email (optional)
- If possible, take a photo or video of the problem.
Submit your report
That’s it! You’re almost done.
- If possible, let us know how you found out about PollWatch: select from the menu.
- Tap (or click) the [Submit] button. Important: you must tap the [Submit] button to send your report to us for review and save your report.
Note that there are several phone numbers you can call, if you’d like to report your problem by speaking English, Spanish, or a number of other languages. You can also send an SMS message to 97779.
Once you’ve submitted your report, the TrustTheVote Project team will review it and all the other problem reports that are submitted on election day. The team will work with reporters to verify as many problems as possible. If your problem can be verified, it may even appear on NBC national news.
Thanks for your help! Voting only works when citizens participate in the process. This is one way where you can help ensure that polling locations are doing their work as part of this election.