In my last post, I recounted an incident from Erie County NY, but deferred to today an account of what the technology troubles were, that prevented the routine use of a Tabulator to create county-wide vote totals by combining count data from each of the opscan paper ballot counting devices. The details are worth considering as a counter-example of technology that is not transparent, but should be.
As I understand the incident, it wasn’t the opscan counting systems that malfunctioned, but rather the portion of the voting system that tabulates the county-wide vote totals. As I described in an earlier post, the ES&S system has no tabulator per se, but rather some aggregation software that is part of the larger body of Election Management System (EMS) software that runs on an ordinary Windows PC. Each opscan devices writes data to a USB stick, and election officials aggregate the data by feeding each stick into the EMS. The EMS is supposed to store all the data on the stick, and add up all the opscan machines’ vote counts into a vote total for each contest.
Last week, though, when Erie County officials tried to do so, the EMS rejected the data sticks. Election officials had no way to use the sticks to corroborate the vote totals that they had made by visually examining the election-night paper-tapes from the 130 opscan devices. Sensible questions: Did the devices’ software err in writing the data to the sticks? If so, might the tapes be incorrect as well? Is the data still there? It turns out that the case was a bug in EMS software, not the devices, and in fact the data on the sticks was just fine. With a workaround on the EMS, the data was extracted from the sticks and used as planned. Further, the workaround did not require a bug fix to the software, which would have been illegal. Instead, some careful hand-crafting of EMS data enabled the software to stop choking on the data from the sticks.
Now, I am not feeling 100% great about the need for such hand-crafting, or indeed about the correctness of the totals produced by a voting system operating outside of its tested ordinary usage. But some canny readers are probably wondering about a simpler question. If the data was on the sticks, why not simply copy the files off the stick using a typical PC, and examine the contents of the files directly? With 40-odd contests countywide and a 100-odd sticks and paper tapes, it’s not that much work to just look at the them to whether the numbers on each stick match those on the tapes. Answer: the voting system software is set up to prevent direct examination, that’s why! The vote data can only be seen via the software in the EMS. And when that software glitches, you have to wonder about what you’re seeing.
This is at least one area where better software design can lead to higher confidence system: write-once media for storing each counting device’s tallies; use of public standard data formats so that anyone examine the data; use of human-usable formats so that anyone can understand the data; use of a separate, single-purpose tabulator device that operates autonomously from the rest of the voting system; publication of the tally data and the tabulator’s output data, so that anyone can check the correct results either manually or with their choice of software. At least that’s the TrustTheVote approach that we’re working out now.