Tagged EAC

Stalking the Errant Voting Machine: the Final Chapter

Some readers may sigh relief at the news that today’s post is the last (for a while at least!) in a series about the use of vote-count auditing methods to detect a situation in which an election result was garbled by the computers used to create them. Today, a little reality check on the use of the the risk-limiting audit methods described earlier. As audit guru Mark Lindeman says,

Risk-limiting audits clearly have some valuable properties, yet no state has ever implemented a risk-limiting audit.

Why not? Despite the rapid development of RLA methods (take a quick glance at this paper to get a flavor), there are several obstacles, including:

  • Basic mis-conceptions: Nothing short of a full re-count will ever prove the absence of a machine count error. Instead, the goal of RLA is to reduce risk that machine count errors altered the outcome of any contest in a given election. Election result correctness is the goal, not machine operations correctness — yet the common mis-perception is often the reverse.
  • Requirements for election audits must be part of state election laws or regulation that implements them. Details of audit methods are technical, and difficult to write into law — and detailed enough that it is perhaps unwise to enshrine in law rather than regulation. Hence, there is some tension and confusion about the respective roles states’ legislative and executive branches.
  • Funding is required. Local election officials have to do the work of audits of any kind, and need funding to do so. A standard flat-percent audit is easier for a state to know how to fund, rather than a variable-effort RLA that depends on election margins and voter turnout.
  • The variability itself is a confusing factor, because you can’t know in advance how large an audit will have to be. This fact creates confusion or resistance among policy-makers and under-funded election officials.
  • Election tabulation systems often do not provide timely (or any) access to the data needed to implement these audits efficiently. These systems simply weren’t designed to help election officials do audits — and hence are another variable cost factor.
  • Absentee and early-voting ballots sometimes pose large logistical challenges.
  • Smaller contests are harder to audit to low risk levels, so someone must decide how to allocate resources across various kinds of contests.

As Lindeman points out, each of these problems is tractable, and real progress in RLA practice can be made without a solution to all of these problems. And in my view, one of the best ways to help would be to greatly increase transparency, including both the operations of the voting systems (not just the tabulation components!), and of the auditing process itself. Then we could at least determine which contests in an election are most at risk even after the audits that election officials are able to conduct at present. Perhaps that would also enable experts like Lindeman to conduct unofficial audits, to demonstrate effectiveness and help indicate efforts and costs for official use of RLA.

And dare I say it, we might even enable ordinary citizens to form their own judgement of an individual contest in an election, based on real published facts about total number of ballots cast in a county, total number of votes in the contest, margins in the contest, total number of precincts, precincts officially audited, and (crank a statistics engine) the actual confidence level in the election result, whether the official audit was too little, too much, or just right. That may sound ambitious, and maybe it is, but that’s what we’re aiming for with operational transparency of the voting system components of the TTV System, and in particular with the TTV Auditor — currently a gleam in the eye, but picking up steam with efforts from NIST and OASIS on standard data formats for election audit data.


New Voting System Vendors Enter the Certification Fray

Here are a couple interesting news tidbits to ponder today, showing the breadth and depth of openness to changes to current U.S. voting methods.

First, some news from the EAC, the part of the Federal government that runs the program for Federal certification of voting systems — certification that in many states is effectively a pre-requesite for legal use of a voting system in the state. The EAC announced that there are 2 new vendors who have joined the certification program — both of them vendors of products that are often called “Internet voting systems”.

It’s very much worth noting that this does not mean that Scytl and EveryoneCounts have certified products! Far from it, though no doubt some approximate language might be misleading on that point. It just means that the companies have qualified with EAC, and may at some point choose to engage with an EAC-certified test lab to evaluate their products. But it is still interesting that this announcement gives the appearance that Internet voting systems might someday be legal for use in the U.S.

Second, some news from Wisconsin about that state’s 5-year mission to figure out what would be a better way to run voting in WI, with pretty much all options on the table to investigate, including a switch to paper ballots solely like MN, all vote by mail like OR, even Internet voting as in a few local election organizations in WA and HI.

It’s gratifying to see how serious people are about the fact that current election approaches need serious improvement, and the improvements have to be undertaken carefully and thoughtfully.


Hasty Innovation: the Kind We Don’t Need

Today’s posting landed in my lap in the form of a note from election tech colleague and Pitt researcher Collin Lynch, as part of a discussion about the role of the Federal government (specifically the Election Assistance Commission, or EAC) in “fostering innovation” in the market for voting systems, and ensuring a “healthy market”. Well, of course, we think that there is plenty of room for improvement in voting systems, but there is a big difference between (for example) improved usability or reliability, and innovative changes voting system administration that require election officials to change how they do their job. But Collin hit the nail on the head:

Speaking as a software developer I think the cry for “supporting innovation” comes from two mistaken impressions.

  1. The mistaken impression that voting laws should somehow be concerned with the “health of the market”, that is, the EAC’s responsibility includes not only the stability of our democracy (difficult enough as it is) but also maintaining “healthy market” for the products of voting system vendors. This is a view that has caught on to some extent in defense spending and other areas but in my view a market exists soley to serve some need and artificially inflating that need, at best, tilts the market to no good end.
  2. The mistaken impression that the technology development process can be “stimulated,” especially when the market has real needs for problems to be fixed, problems that appear simple and therefore should be fixed quickly. For voting systems in particular, this is not true.

These are fundamental misunderstandings of how good systems development works and how it can be made to work. In the extreme I have seen purchasers of systems assume that programmers “can just work faster” without considering the costs of quality and stability this brings. This is a view encouraged by the (seemingly) breathless pace of .com development which of course ignores the long lead time many of these overnight successes have and the stability problems that result from alphas being rushed to market.

I couldn’t agree more. The last thing that we need in voting systems is encouraging vendors’ already-existing bent for innovative bell/whistle features that customers (election officials) didn’t ask for, and/or pushing for updated systems to be developed quickly and rushed through the regulatory certification and accreditation process. And while we at the TrustTheVote project are hardly in favor of foot-dragging, we do also recognize that quality, reliability, simplicity, integrity, and many other important qualities, fundamentally start with understanding what the customers need, and making sure that we build to those needs — and with the attention to quality and reliability that is needed to make it through the regulatory process as well.