Tagged paper ballot

Tabulator Troubles in New York

Behind the election news in Buffalo, NY, there is a cautionary tale about voting system complexity and confidence. The story is about a very close race for the state Senate’s 60th district. One news article includes a reference to “software problems with the new electronic voting machines in Erie County.”

The fundamental issue here is whether to trust the vote count numbers, in a case where the race is very close and where the voting system malfunctioned at least once, because of a software bug later identified by the vendor. If one part of the system malfunctioned, shouldn’t we also be concerned that another part may also have malfunctioned? An error on even one of the over a 100 paper-ballot-counting devices could easily swamp the very small margin between the top two candidates.

Those are good questions, and as frequent readers will already know, the typical answer is “audit”, that is, hand-counting a portion of the paper ballots to ensure that the hand-counts match the machine counts, using statistical science to guide how many ballots to hand count to achieve confidence that the overall election results are valid. That’s what the state of Connecticut — another recent adopter of paper ballots over lever machines — is doing with a manual count of ballots from 73 of the 734 precincts statewide.

But that’s not happening in Buffalo (as far as I can tell), where instead there is wrangling over doing a full re-count, with confusion over the voting system malfunction muddying the waters. And that’s a shame, because election technology properly used (including routine audits) should not cause this kind of legal activity over the validity of an election result — in this case an important one that could influence party control in the state Senate, with re-districting on the horizon.

But some of the finger-point goes to the technology too. What actually malfunctioned? Could the glitch have effect the election result? What can we learn from the incident? Questions for next time …


Alabama: Vendor Supplies Pencils for Marking Ballots

Continuing on with our recap of election technology faults and oddities in the recent election, not the most alarming but perhaps the most perplexing is a story from Gadsden, AL. From the the news article, it seems that Etowah County’s election officials rely on their voting system vendor, Election Systems and Services (ES&S) to provide election supplies for using ES&S’s opscan ballot counter. So far so good, but the supplies include what ES&S coyly refers to a “marking devices”, a.k.a. pens for voters to use to fill in bubbles on the paper ballot. Why the county needs to buy pens from ES&S rather than a local Office Depot or similar, I couldn’t say, but here is the weird bit …

ES&S couldn’t manage to find enough pens that both adequately marked their ballots, and met the $9 a dozen price point, which an ES&S representative implied was a money-loser for them in their service contract with Etowah County. And here is the really weird bit: instead of buying some $12 a dozen pens, or letting the election officials know about the pen shortage (!), ES&S supplied pencils instead of pens. That’s right, pencils, with an implied recommendation that it is OK for voters to mark a ballot with an erasable mark; and implied endorsement that the opscan counting devices read pencil marks as well marks from ink-based “marking devices.”

It will come as no surprise to readers here that the counting machines got flakey when presented with pencil marked ballots, and caused some trouble at the polling places — or at least the need to run over to a local store and buy some more pens. It seems that no great harm was done, at least based on what I was able to glean from the news article. People marked ballots with pencil, got them kicked back from the scanners, and had to wait for one of those scarce pens to become available to be able to mark a fresh ballot in pen. One hopes that poll workers correctly stored the pencil ballots as spoiled, and properly failed to examine the ballots to determine how a voter voted. These are normal operational risks, of course, but here again we see where flakey machines and/or flakey vendors create the polling place conditions where:

  • Accurate, private, timely voting is more at risk than need be.
  • Election officials and volunteers have to operate with more power and discretion, and less transparency, than anyone would prefer under normal circumstances.

But honestly, the story is short, and has several bits that are so wacky, I really urge you to read it yourself. Here are some of the bits that leapt out at me when I read it. These are quotes, but italics are mine, indicating where my jaw dropped. 🙂

  • Election Systems and Software … included pencils in supply packets because of a shortage of pens.
  • County election officials discovered that when they checked supplies prior to Election Day.
  • ES and S apologized for the problems that arose from the change to pencils, which he said “created more issues than we anticipated.”
  • … continual changes have made it difficult to evaluate and settle on a “reliable, consistently available pen.”
  • … cost of pens that meet technical requirements had increased to more than $9 a dozen, and with the quantities needed for the election, that amounted to a “significant cost.”
  • [ES&S] won’t provide pencils for future elections and “will be looking for a suitable pen that meets the various needs of all.”

Really weird. I guess that what Etowah County deserves, but does not have today, is a voting system with optical scanners that are “functionally compatible” with a “marking device” that local election officials can easily buy by the hundred dozen at a local store. I know that I often explain here why some aspect of election technology is not rocket science, but I an assure you, no combustion engineering or orbital mechanics are required to find a black felt tip pen to mark a bubble that a scanner can scan and counting software can find. It’s too bad that’s not the case in Gadsden.


NY Times: Hanging Chad in New York?

NYT reported on the continuing counting in some New York elections, with the control of the NY state house (and hence redistricting) hanging in the balance. The article is mostly apt, but the reference to “hanging chad” is not quite right. FL 2000’s hanging chad drama was mainly about the ridiculous extreme that FL went to in trying to regularize the hand re-counting rules for paper ballots, while each time a ballot was touched, the rule could change because the chad moved.

In this NY election, the problem is not a re-count, but a slow count; not problems with the paper ballots per se, but with the opscan counting system; and not a fundamental problem with the ballot counting method, but several problems arising from poll-worker and election officials’ unfamiliarity with the system, being used for the first time in this election. Best quote:

Reginald A. LaFayette, the Democratic chairman of the Board of Elections in Westchester, said older poll workers had trouble reading the vote tallies printed out by the machines. “You take the average age of an inspector, it’s maybe about 65, and so you put a new product out with them, and the change has been overwhelming to some of them,” he said.

It’s another example of the of situation I recently described in North Carolina. These voting systems were built for time-to-market, rather than designed, engineered, and tested for usability and reliability — much less designed for simplicity of the process of combining tallies into election results.

The recent experience in New York is nothing truly new – but rather an example of the usability issues manifested in an election organization that, unlike those elsewhere using similar voting system products, has not yet learned by experience how to use these quirky systems with greater speed and transparency than the first time around. Of course, it is a shame that this type learning-by-doing in real elections is necessary at all, to get to a reasonably transparent election process. But that’s what the vendors served up the market, and that’s what TTV is working to improve on.


Spokane County Ballot Copying — Problem?

Here is some interesting news from Spokane WA, where ballot counting has been seriously delayed because election officials are hand copying tens of thousands of ballots. It’s an interesting lesson in how vote-by-mail (Spokane is an all-VBM county in WA) creates higher operational requirements for accountability, transparency, and election integrity.

Some readers may not be familiar with the practice of hand-copying VBM ballots, and ask: what’s going on? The situation is that for some reasons (read the news article for speculation on why), thousands of Spokane voters did not follow instructions on marking their ballot, for example, putting a check mark over a bubble rather than filling the bubble. checkedbubbleIf a paper ballot has even one of these mistakes anywhere, the ballot can’t be machine counted — the optical counting device kicks the ballot back out. And because this is vote-by-mail where the voter is not present during counting, there is no voter to ask to re-do the ballot. Instead, local election officials (LEOs) have to simply guess what the voter meant.

This is called “interpreting the voter’s intent” in order to count every vote that the LEOs think that the voter cast on the ballot. After making such an interpretation of a ballot, an LEO marks a new blank ballot, copying all the voter’s marks to tidy filled-in bubbles that the scanners will count. After all the uncountable ballots have been copied to a countable ballot-copy, the voting counting can finally proceed.

I’ve said many times that election technology should provide (and as our efforts at TTV bear fruit, will provide) support for such interpretation, and do so with as much logging and transparency as possible. I think that most people would agree that confidence in an election result depends in part on knowing how many votes were created by LEOs on behalf of a voter, rather than the mark of a voter that is so unambiguous that a machine can recognize it. Such automation might also reduce the need for laborious copying, preserving for all to see, an image of the original ballot together with the interpretation provided by LEOs during the counting process.

But the scale of Spokane operation really has me squirming. Tens of thousands! I mean, sure, I believe that the process is being done diligently, with intense scrutiny by people independent of the LEOs (members of the public, good government groups, political party people). But over days and days of efforts, under pressure to get the election results out, I fear that exhaustion and human error may take a toll. And unless the public (or at least auditors) have access to each ballot in all 3 forms (what the voter provided, what an LEO transcribed, what the scanner counted) it is going to be very hard determine whether this large-scale transcription process introduced errors. If this process were happening, for example, in New York with several very close contests, I could see people pushing for hand re-count. Let’s hope that in WA the margins of victory are larger that the errors that could have been introduced by transcription.

And in the meantime, I wish the best to Spokane LEOs plowing through this mound of uncountable paper, and I continue squirm, wishing we had already finished the TTV central-count technology that could really help today.


Dust Settles on Election Results, But Not Voting System Troubles

It should come as no surprise that this month’s election activities included claims of voting machine malfunction and related investigation and litigation. In many parts of the U.S., the voting systems used this month are the same flakey systems that in the past have created controversy and legal wrangling. (I promise to define “flakey”.)

But are the new lessons learned? or is this more of the same underwhelming voting technology experience that observers have come to expect? I think that, yes, there are new lessons learned. North Carolina the source for one set of teachable remarks, shown in two statements made in the context of North Carolina’s voting machine controversy in this election.

The background is that in some parts of NC there were numerous reports of touch-screen voting machines apparently malfunctioning, swapping voter selections from what the voter intended, to selections that they hadn’t made. (Some people call this “vote flipping” but I find it to be a misleading term that doesn’t cover the extensive range of odd touch-screen behavior.) The NC RNC claimed that these glitches seemed to favor Democratic candidates over Republican candidates, and started some interesting litigation.

The first notable statement was from NC GOP chair Tom Fetzer in the context of starting the litigation:

We cannot have an election where voters in counties where the machines are used have less confidence that their votes are being accurately counted than in counties where optical scan ballots are used …

The second is form Johnnie McLean, deputy director of the State Board of Elections, at the conclusion of the litigation:

I hope this is the end of the issue. We have every confidence in the voting systems North Carolina has and I’ve seen no evidence that we should feel differently.

I really find these to be curious statements that nevertheless cast some new light on the existing decades-old touch screen systems. With respect to Mr. Fetzer, I don’t think that one kind of voting machine is inherently more reliable than another — though people may have a more confident feeling about one over the other. Both the optical scanners and the touch-screen DREs are computers running software with bugs, and it’s possible that either could be mis-counting votes. Both can and should be cross-checked in the same way with statistical audits using hand-counting of either the scanned paper ballots, or the paper record produced by the DRE.

Old news: every kind of voting machine is a computer that should not be blindly trusted to operate correctly. New news: that fact is not altered if some people think that one system is more flakey than others. With respect to Ms. McLean, people will unavoidably “feel differently” if they see touch screens mis-behaving.

Next time … “flakey” defined, and a full response to Ms. McLean.


Where We Stand – on D.C. and Elsewhere

We’ve been answering lots of questions about the OSDV Foundation’s role in the District of Columbia’s Pilot “digital vote-by-mail” project, including a recent post with a detailed account of the history leading up to the Pilot.  But there is one Q&A in particular that I want to share with a broader audience. It’s a two-part question:

  1. Where do the OSDV Foundation and TrustTheVote Project stand on Internet voting?
  2. How does this square with OSDV’s role in the D.C. Pilot?

To complement Greg’s recent post , I’ve provided what I hope is a crisp, yet complete, answer in the form of a pointed list of positions, which apply very specifically to the use of technology in U.S. elections.

On Internet Voting

  • We do not support Internet voting for everyone – such all-electronic elections lack the ease of independent verification that is the strength of the method of op-scan counted paper ballots coupled with mandatory auditing.
  • We do not support any of the types of Internet voting used in other countries – there is no voter-approved ballot document when the ballot itself is HTML and HTTP data exchanged by a Web browser and an i-voting server.
  • We do not support any usage of email for transporting marked ballots – email is fundamentally and easily vulnerable to mischief en route from the voter to the BOE.
  • These on-line methods of voting and ballot transport all have significant risks to ballot integrity, inherent in the use of the Internet.
  • These on-line methods have significant risk to the “secret ballot” by making either ballots or votes attributable to specific voters.
  • These on-line methods are not a form of “verified voting” where the ballot marked by the voter is the ballot that is counted.
  • We fully support verified voting methods for domestic polling place voting.
  • We fully support existing election practices of paper vote-by-mail.
  • Our core mission is and will remain the creation of open transparent technology to support the existing election practices.
  • We support existing UOCAVA voter-support methods including digital distribution of blank ballots, and express delivery (e.g., surface courier or mails) of marked paper ballots from the voter to their respective BOE.
  • We believe that there may be a need for digital ballot return by those UOCAVA voters who lack timely access to rapid and reliable means of paper ballot return, and who have recently used email for digital ballot return.
  • We believe that it is worth considering whether those UOCAVA voters should demonstrate a need for digital return because of that lack of timely access.

About the D.C. Pilot

  • We are supporting D.C.’s Pilot effort to investigate the need for and feasibility of a Web-based alternative with significantly less risk to the “secret ballot.”
  • We believe that the Pilot’s method does not make Internet voting completely safe or secure for general use.
  • We believe that the Pilot’s method does not make Internet voting completely safe or secure for UOCAVA voters.
  • We believe that the Pilot’s method does address some security issues of current email voting, but does not attempt to address all security issues of email voting, or all security issues of Internet usage.
  • We believe that the Pilot project will create a publicly documented worked example that can be used for concrete evaluation of the Internet risks and ballot-secrecy benefits; an evaluation that should be part of consideration of whether or not any form of digital VBM methods are appropriate for continued use for UOCAVA voters.
  • We believe that the worked-example benefit will be strongly supported by the Pilot project’s pre-election public review period for anyone to try the system, to examine, probe, and assess not only the technology but also its deployment and usage.
  • We believe that the worked-example benefit will be strongly supported by a public post-election out-brief.
  • We believe that the transparency of the Pilot will be strongly supported by system’s software being available for use independent of the DC pilot, including, but not limited to, the existing TrustTheVote Project software for election administration and ballot design, which is one of our key contributions to the project.
  • We believe that much of the digital ballot technology can be dual use, applying to both UOCAVA vote-by-mail and overseas kiosk-based voting.

These statements are specific to U.S. election practices and laws, especially about U.S. military and overseas voters. We certainly respect that other countries have different needs, practices, and capabilities, and in general, a very different election landscape than in the U.S., with its 50+ different state election codes, thousands of election administration jurisdictions, dozens of electoral districts for each individual voter, and a significant portion of the electorate that must vote remotely.

Lastly, an important caveat: these are positions, opinions, and beliefs only of the OSDV Foundation; we do not advocate on behalf of any other organization; as a non-profit public benefits corporation we cannot directly lobby any public agency or institution for any policy or regulatory change. That stated, we certainly can and will continue to opine here and elsewhere, but as always our focus is on the application of technology in the administering of public elections.


Washington Post on DC “Online Voting” Is Actually “Ballot Transport”

Kudos to the Washington Post’s Rob Pegoraro for his article “D.C. launches test of open-source online voting” — fine coverage, but with a title that I disagree with in terminology only. I don’t view the D.C. pilot as “online voting” but rather as a test of an additional form of digital transport for return of blank ballots. I say “additional” because of the existing “on-line” features of absentee voting:

  1. Digital distribution of blank ballots via email or web;
  2. Digital return of marked ballots via email or fax.

The main point of the D.C. pilot is an alternative to #2. Rather than using open email, the DC pilot will transport ballot documents in a conventionally secured private Web session between the voter and a Web server operated by the DC BOEE. I won’t repeat why open email transport is a problem, but the purpose of the pilot is to produce a worked example that is a solution to at least some of the problems that are specific to email as a way to return a marked ballot document.


District of Columbia to Adopt TrustTheVote Technology for Overseas Voter Support in September Primary

We’re pleased to echo the announcement by the District of Columbia’s Board of Election and Ethics (BOEE) that they will adopt TrustTheVote technology as part of a pilot project to support the delivery and return of overseas ballots. In Washington D.C.’s September primary election, open-source technology from the TrustTheVote Project will be used to digitally deliver and return the absentee voting kits of overseas, military and absentee voters. This pilot project will test a new form of digital “Vote by Mail” ballot transport service.

The BOEE’s announcement has the details, but the gist is this:

  • Some overseas and military voters are in danger of their absentee ballots not being counted, due to delays in postal delivery back to the BOEE.
  • As a result some voters use fax or email for digital return of marked ballots, but these timely methods have the side-effect of compromising the integrity and anonymity of the ballot.
  • The pilot project will test a Web-based alternative process that is no less timely, but lacks these side-effects, and otherwise use same familiar methods of absentee ballot casting and counting that voters and election officials use today.
  • The use of TTV’s open source software is a key part of meeting the pilot project’s goals for public visibility of open technology and transparent election operations.

We’ll be saying plenty more about these efforts as we along, you can be sure!


Dude, What Is My Ballot, Really?

(Part 2 of 2: What’s My Ballot?)

Today, I’m continuing on from a recent post, which compared my in-person voting experience with one method of Internet-based voting: return of marked ballots by fax or email. Next up is a similar comparison with another form of Internet-based voting: Internet voting from home using a PC’s Web browser.

Let’s briefly recall the result at the end of the day in my polling place:
1. Some paper ballots in a ballot box.
2. Some digital vote totals in a computer, and set of paper rolls that provide a ballot-like paper trail of each voter’s activity that led to those vote totals. The paper trails can be used to check the correctness of the digital vote totals.
Let’s also recall the result at the end of the day with email ballot return:
1. Some printed versions of faxed/emailed ballots, which are treated as ballots for counting purposes.
While we’re at it, let’s recall the results of the old lever machines too:
1. Some mechanical vote totals in one or more machines
2. A hand-recorded paper transcription of the “odometer” readings. (Those machines were a lot harder to move than a computer is! So the transcriptions were the basis for vote totals.)

Now, on to home-based Web i-voting. Before doing the end-of-the-day comparison, let’s start with what the experience looks like — fundamentally, it’s Web pages. You point your browser to a Web site; you type in your voter identification, a bit like the in-person poll-book signing experience; and then you get your ballot: one or more Web pages. Various Internet voting products and services differ, but they are all fundamentally similar to something that I bet many readers have seen already: online surveys. Take a look at this simple election-like survey about music in Cuyahoga County. The web page looks like a simple ballot, with contests for vocalist and guitarist instead of governor and dog-catcher. There are candidates, and you vote by selecting one with a mouse click on a radio button next to the name of your favorite.

So far, so familiar, but when I press that submit button, what happens? Where’s my ballot? Let’s take it step by step.

  • The submit button is part of an HTML form, which is part of the Web page. (You can see the HTML form if you “View Page Source” in your browser.)
  • Pressing the button tells your browser to collect up the form’s data, which might include Rachel Roberts for Vocalist if you had clicked the radio button next to Rachel.
  • These parts of the forms data are something that in election lingo you might call a “vote” (or “contest selection” to be precise.)
  • The HTML form data, including the vote-oid data, is sent from your browser to the Web server via an HTTP POST operation.
  • The HTTP transaction is typically via an encrypted SSL session, to preserve privacy en route over the Internet.
  • The Web server passes the POST parameters to some election-specific Web application software, which interprets the data as votes, and stores the vote data in a database.

Now, let’s be specific about that database stuff. In surveymonkey, there is a database record for each Cleveland Music survey response, and it’s possible (if the survey was set up that way) that the record also includes some information about the person who responded. In actual government voting, though, of course we don’t want that. So even though the i-voting server has a database of voters, and even though you had to log in to the i-voting server, and even though you were only allowed to vote if the voter record said you were allowed to vote, still your vote data shouldn’t be stored with your voter record. So, the vote data is supposed to be anonymously and separately stored, becoming part of vote totals for each candidate in each contest.

Can you say “odometer“? Okay, maybe it’s not that obvious, so let me juxtapose a couple images. As I recounted earlier, a much younger me is standing in the voting booth of a lever machine, looking a big bank of little switches next to candidate names, and thinking that is the ballot. Then the big lever is pulled, the little switches flip back, and it’s like the ballot just evaporated! Though of course I was told that the counter dials in the back of the machine did tick over like the odometer on a car, recording each vote. The votes were stored on the odometers, but the ballot was gone without a trace. Now shift the scene to my first surveymonkey experience. I clicked some radio buttons, clicked submit, and poof! what I thought was a ballot just disappeared. I’m told that the counters in a database somewhere ticked over to record my “votes.” Again, votes were supposedly recorded, but there wasn’t really ever a durable ballot. Home-based web client-server Internet voting is just like that, regardless of varying technical implementation details. There’s no durable ballot document.

So, at the end of the day, we have stored vote totals in a database of a system that also logged the voter logins. At that point I don’t have an answer to “What’s the ballot” anymore than I do for lever machines or the early paper-trail-less DREs. Unlike the (much-more-insecure) email ballot delivery, we don’t really know what or where the ballots are. Recalling my experience in the Middlefield Road fire house, the vote data is similarly stored as bits on a computer, but!!! there is also the paper trail. That paper trail can be used to audit the system and detect errors and fraud, and serves as the durable record of the vote — almost a ballot, except for being on flimsy paper with some ballot information left out. But with i-voting, there is nothing even similar. Any kind of auditing that’s done, is done using data saved on the server computers, rather than looking at a ballot document that the voter also saw.

Is that so terrible? Maybe so, maybe not. A durable ballot is not a holy requirement for U.S. elections — though in some parts of the country it almost is. And a durable ballot may not be a requirement for a voting system that is specifically and only for timely assistance of overseas and military voters. Such requirements are a matter of local election law and decisions of local election officials. But my critical observation here is about voter trust. Trust derives in large measure from comprehension. And for many voters, a voting system is comprehensible if the voter knows what the ballot is, where it goes, and what happens to it. That’s why overseas voters like fax and email return. Despite the security and anonymity problems, the voter understands that ballot, how it pops out of the fax/printer on the other side of the planet, and how its counted as a paper ballot. The same can’t be said for paperless home-based i-voting. As a consequence, I think that it will be harder to build trust, at least in some parts of the country that are paper-centric. However, it may be less of a big deal if limited to overseas and military voters, whose main concern is “get the the ballot home in time to be counted.” The pilots are happening, and time will tell.


Dude, Where’s My Ballot?

I just finished voting in CA’s primary — whew! 47 contests, 76 candidates total, and for on-paper voters, 4 sheets! But today, instead of hand-marking a ballot (my preference explained in an earlier posting), I used a DRE. This voting machine is part of the voting system that San Mateo County purchased from Hart Systems, the smallest of the 3 remaining vendors with a significant share of the U.S. voting systems market.

Comparing with people voting on paper or turning in vote-by-mail packets at the polling place, I had to ask myself the question: where’s my ballot? The answer is in two parts.

As a techie, part of my answer is that an electronic version of my ballot is stored as bits on magnetic storage inside one of the computers in the polling place. It may or may not be not be a “ballot” per se (a distinct collection of selections in the contests), but rather just votes recorded as parts of vote total, analogous to the odometers on the old lever machines. As jaded techie, this strikes me as not the most reliable way to store my ballot.

However, as an observant voter, I can also see that my ballot is also represented by the “paper trail” on the voting machine. As an informed voter (a trained poll worker who also talks to local election officials), I know that this paper is used by election officials as part of auditing the correct operation of the computers, by manually tabulating vote totals for a handful of randomly selected precincts — an extremely important part of the election process here. However, as a jaded observant voter, the cheap paper roll (like a gas station receipt printer) strikes me as not a very durable way of recording the ballot information that I could have put on nice solid real paper ballots.

But leaving aside questions of paper stock, the combination of the two ballot recording methods is pretty good, and the audit process is great! Though I have to say: my thanks and condolences go to the hard working San Mateo County elections staff who wield scissors to cut the paper rolls into individual ballot-oid papers to be hand-tabulated in the audit.

So, as a paper ballot fan, I left reasonably satisfied, though glad of the ability to vote on paper in November. It’s a bit of a conceptual leap to go from a tangible paper ballot in a locked ballot box, to the above non-short answer to “Where’s my ballot?” But it’s a leap that I think many voters can be satisfied with, or would be if the paper trial items actually looked like ballots (as in the system we’re building at TrustTheVote). But it got me thinking about some of the overseas-voter Internet voting pilots I’ve been reading about. That’s enough for today, but a good question for another day, about Internet voting, is the same question, “Where’s my ballot?” More soon …