Tagged voting machine

Future of Voting Systems: Future Requirements (Part 1)

For this first of several reports from the NIST/EAC Future of Voting Systems Symposium II, some readers of my recent report on standard work, may heave a sigh of relief that I’m not doing a long post that’s a laundry list of topics. However, I will be doing a series of posts on one part of the conference, a session held by some EAC who run the voting systems certification program, which relies on a “guidelines” document that is actually a complex set of standards that voting systems have to meet in order to get certified.

The reason that I am doing a series of posts is that the session was on a broad topic: if you were able to write a whole new requirements document from scratch, oriented to future voting systems, not required to support the existing certification program backwards-compatibly, then … what would you put in your hypothetical standards for each of several topics? Not surprisingly, I and my colleagues at TrustTheVote (and like minded folks in the election world more broadly) have some pretty clear views on many areas. As promised to the folks running this session, I’ll be using this blog to document more fully the recommendations we discussed, informed (with thanks) by the views of others at this conference. But I’ll be doing it in chunks over time, because I don’t think anybody wants tome here. 🙂

The Fork in the Road

The zeroth recommendation — that is, before getting to any of the topics requested! — is about the overall scope of a future standard. In the decade or so since the current one was developed (and even more years to the earlier versions), things have changed a lot in the election tech world, and change is accelerating. We are no longer in the stage of “wow that hanging chad fiasco was horrible, we need to replace them fast with computerized voting machines.” We’ve learned a lot. And one of the biggest learnings is that there is a huge fork in the road, which effects nearly all the requirements that one might make for voting systems. That’s what I want to explain today, in part because it was a good chunk of the discussions at the conference.

The fork in the road is this: you either have a voting system that supports evidence-based election results, or you don’t.

In this context, evidence-based means that the voting system produces evidence of its vote tallies that can be cross-checked by humans — and this is the important part — without having to trust or rely on software in any way. That’s important, because as we know, software is not and can never be perfect or trustworthy. In practice, what this means is that for each voter, there is a paper ballot that can be counted directly by people conducting a ballot audit. The typical practice is to take a statistically significant group of ballots for which we have machine count totals — typically a whole precinct in practice today — and manually count them to see if there is any significant variance between human and machine count that could indicate the machine count (or the human audit) had some errors. The process for resolving the rare variances is a larger topic, but the point here is that the process provides assurance of correct results without relying on computers working perfectly all the time.

That’s not the only way to build a voting system, and it’s not the only way to run an election. And in the U.S., our state and local election officials have choices. But many of them do want paper-based processes, to complement modern use of ballot marking devices for accessibility, ballot counters, ballot on demand, ballot readers for those with impaired vision, and a host of technical innovations emerging, including such things as on-boarding processes at polling places, interactive sample ballots for home use, and more. And for those election officials, the evidence-based voting systems have some important requirements.

The Harder Path

But let’s respect the other path as well, which includes a lot of paperless DRE voting machines still in use (and also some internet-voting schemes that several elections orgs are experimenting with). A lot of voters use these older systems. But there is a big difference in the requirements. Indeed, the bulk and complexity of the early requirements standard (and its larger 10-year-old successor) is due to trying to encompass early DRE based systems. Because these systems placed complete reliance on computers, the current requirements include an enormous amount of attention on security, risk management, software development practices, and more, all oriented to helping vendors build systems that would to the extent possible avoid creating a threat of “hacked elections.”

In fact, if you read it now, it looks like a time warp opened and a dropped through a doc from 2004 or so; and it reads pretty well as good advice for the time, on how to use then-current software and systems to — pardon me for the vernacular — “create a system that is not nearly as easily hacked as most stuff being made now.” (This was in windows XP days, recall.)

I suppose that some updated version of these requirements will be appropriate for future non-evidence-based voting systems. It will take a while to develop; it will be a bit dated by the time it is approved; and its use in voting system development, independent testing, and certification, will be about as burdensome as what we’ve seen in recent years. It has to be done, though, because the risks are greater now that ever, given that the expertise of cyber-adversaries continues to expand beyond the ability of the most sophisticated tech orgs to match.

The Road Not Taken?

So my 0th recommendation is do not apply these existing standards to evidence based voting systems. I’d almost like to see the new standard in two volumes – one for evidence based and one for others. It would just be a crazy waste of people’s time, effort, energy, and ingenuity to apply such burdensome requirements to evidence based systems, and ironic too: evidence based voting systems are specifically defined to entirely avoid many risks — in fact, the exact risks that the current requirements seek to mitigate! In fact, I would almost recommend further that the new version of the EAC start getting input on how to develop a new streamlined set of voting system requirements specifically for evidence-based systems. I say “almost” because I started to see exactly that starting to glimmer at the NIST/EAC conf this week. And that was super encouraging!

So, my specific recommendations will be entirely focused on what such new requirements should be for evidence-based voting systems. For the other fork in the road, the current standards set a pretty good direction. More soon …

— EJS

The Root Cause — Long Lines, Late Ballot Counts, and Election Dysfunction in General

I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the last few days digesting a broad range of media responses to last week’s election’s operation, much it reaction to President Obama’s “we’ve got to fix that” comment in his acceptance speech. There’s a lot of complaining about the long lines, for example, demands for explanation of them, or ideas for preventing them in te future — and similar for the difficulty that some states and counties face for finishing the process of counting the ballots. It’s a healthy discussion for the most part, but one that makes me sad because it mostly misses the main point: the root cause of most election dysfunction. I can explain that briefly from my viewpoint, and back that up with several recent events.

The plain unvarnished truth is that U.S. local election officials, taken all together as the collective group that operates U.S. federal and state elections, simply do not have the resources and infrastructure to conduct elections that

  • have large turnout and close margins, preceded by much voter registration activity;
  • are performed with transparency that supports public trust in the integrity of the election being accessible, fair, and accurate.

There are longstanding gaps in the resources needed, ranging from ongoing budget for sufficient staff, to inadequate technology for election administration, voting, counting, and reporting.

Of course in any given election, there are local elections operations that proceed smoothly, with adequate resources and physical and technical infrastructure. But we’ve seen again and again, that in every “big” election, there is a shifting cast of distressed states or localities (and a few regulars), where adminstrative snafus, technology glitches, resource limits, and other factors get magnified as a result of high participation and close margins. Recent remarks by Broward County, FL, election officials — among those with the most experience in these matters — really crystalized it for me. When asked about the cause of the long lines, their response (my paraphrase) is that when the election is important, people are very interested in the election, and show up in large numbers to vote.

That may sound like a trivial or obvious response, but consider it just a moment more. Another way of saying it is that their resources, infrastructure, and practices have been designed to be sufficient only for the majority of elections that have less than 50% turnout and few if any state or federal contests that are close. When those “normal parameters” are exceeded, the whole machinery of elections starts grinding down to a snail’s pace. The result: an election that is, or appears to be, not what we expect in terms of being visibily fair, accessible, accurate, and therefore trustworthy.

In other words, we just haven’t given our thousands of localities of election officials what they really need to collectively conduct a larger-than-usual, hotly contested election, with the excellence that they are required to deliver, but are not able to. Election excellence is, as much as any of several other important factors, a matter of resources and infrastructure. If we could somehow fill this gap in infrastructure, and provide sufficient funding and staff to use it, then there would be enormous public benefits: elections that are high-integrity and demonstrably trustworthy, despite being large-scale and close.

That’s my opinion anyway, but let me try to back it up with some specific and recent observations about specific parts of the infrastructure gap, and then how each might be bridged.

  • One type of infrastructure is voter record systems. This year in Ohio, the state voter record system poorly served many LEOs who searched for but didn’t find many many registered absentee voters to whom they should have mailed absentee ballots. The result was a quarter million voters forced into provisional voting — where unlike casting a ballot in a polling place, there is no guarantee that the ballot will be counted — and many long days of effort for LEOs to sort through them all. If the early, absentee, and election night presidential voting in Ohio had been closer, we would still be waiting to hear from Ohio.
  • Another type of infrastucture is pollbooks — both paper, and electronic — and the systems that prepare them for an election. As usual in any big election, we have lots of media anecdotes about people who had been on these voter rolls, but weren’t on election day (that includes me by the way). Every one of these instances slows down the line, causes provisional voting (which also takes extra time compared to regular voting), and contributes to long lines.
  • Then there are the voting machines. For the set of places where voting depends on electronic voting machines, there are always some places where the machines don’t start, take too long get started, break, or don’t work right. By now you’ve probably seen the viral youtube video of the touch screen that just wouldn’t record the right vote. That’s just emblematic of the larger situation of unreliable, aging voting systems, used by LEOs who are stuck with what they’ve got, and no funding to try to get anything better. The result: late poll opening, insufficient machines, long lines.
  • And for some types of voting machines — those that are completely paperless — there is simply no way to do a recount, if one is required.
  • In other places, paper ballots and optical scanners are the norm, but they have problems too. This year in Florida, some ballots were huge! six pages in many cases. The older scanning machines physically couldn’t handle the increased volume. That’s bad but not terrible; at least people can vote. However, there are still integrity requirements — for example, the voters needs to put their unscanned ballots in an emergency ballot box, rather than entrust a marked ballot to a poll worker. But those crazy huge ballots, combined with the frequent scanner malfunction, created overstuffed full emergency ballot boxes, and poll workers trying to improvise a way store them. Result: more delays in the time each voter required, and a real threat to the secret ballot and to every ballot being counted.

Really, I could go on for more and more of the infrastructure elements that in this election had many examples of dysfunction. But I expect that you’ve seen plenty already. But why, you ask, why is the infrastructure so inadequate to the task of a big, complicated, close election conducted with accessibility, accuracy, security, transparency, and earning public trust? Isn’t there something better?

The sad answer, for the most part, is not at present. Thought leaders among local election officials — in Los Angeles and Austin just to name a couple — are on record that current voting system offerings just don’t meet their needs. And the vendors of these systems don’t have the ability to innovate and meet those needs. The vendors are struggling to keep up a decent business, and don’t see the type of large market with ample budgets that would be a business justification for new systems and the burdensome regulatory process to get them to market.

In other cases, most notably with voter records systems, there simply aren’t products anymore, and many localities and states are stuck with expensive-to-maintain legacy systems that were built years ago by big system integrators, that have no flexibility to adapt to changes in election administration, law, or regulation, and that are too expensive to replace.

So much complaining! Can’t we do anything about it? Yes. Every one of those and other parts of election infrastructure breakdowns or gaps can be improved, and could, if taken together, provide immense public benefit if state and local election officials could use those improvements. But where can they come from? Especially if the current market hasn’t provided, despite a decade of efforts and much federal funding? Longtime readers know the answer: by election technology development that is outside of the current market, breaks the mold, and leverages recent changes in information technology, and the business of information technology. Our blog in the coming weeks will have several examples of what we’ve done to help, and what we’re planning next.

But for today, let me be brief with one example, and details on it later. We’ve worked with state of Virginia to build one part of new infrastructure for voter registration, and voter record lookup, and reporting, that meets existing needs and offers needed additions that the older systems don’t have. The VA state board of elections (SBE) doesn’t pay any licensing fees to use this technology — that’s part of what open source is about. The don’t have to acquire the software and deploy it in their datacenter, and pay additional (and expensive) fees to their legacy datacenter operator, a government systems integrator. They don’t have to go back to the vendor of the old system to pay for expensive but small and important upgrades in functionality to meet new election laws or regulations.

Instead, the SBE contracts with a cloud services provider, who can — for a fraction of the costs in a legacy in-house government datacenter operated by a GSI — obtain the open-source software, integrate it with the hosting provider’s standard hosting systems, test, deploy, operate, and monitor the system. And the SBE can also contract with anyone they choose, to create new extensions to the system, with competition for who can provide the best service to create them. The public benefits because people anywhere and anytime can check if they are registered to vote, or should get an absentee ballot, and not wait like in Ohio until election day to find out that they are one in a quarter million people with a problem.

And then the finale, of course, is that other states can also adopt this new voter records public portal, by doing a similar engagement with that same cloud hosting provider, or any other provider of their choice that supports similar cloud technology. Virginia’s investment in this new election technology is fine for Virginia, but can also be leveraged by other states and localities.

After many months of work on this and other new election technologies put into practical use, we have many more stories to tell, and more detail to provide. But I think that if you follow along and see the steps so far, you may just see a path towards these election infrastructure gaps getting bridged, and flexibly enough to stay bridged. It’s not a short path, but the benefits could be great: elections where LEOs have the infrastructure to work with excellence in demanding situations, and can tangibly show the public that they can trust the election as having been accessible to all who are eligible to vote, performed with integrity, and yielding an accurate result.

— EJS

TrustTheVote on HuffPost

We’ll be live on HuffPost online today at 8pm eastern:

  • @HuffPostLive http://huff.lv/Uhokgr or live.huffingtonpost.com

and I thought we should share our talking points for the question:

  • How do you compare old-school paper ballots vs. e-voting?

I thought the answers would be particularly relevant to today’s NYT editorial on the election which concluded with this quote:

That the race came down to a relatively small number of voters in a relatively small number of states did not speak well for a national election apparatus that is so dependent on badly engineered and badly managed voting systems around the country. The delays and breakdowns in voting machines were inexcusable.

I don’t disagree, and indeed would extend from flaky voting machines to election technology in general, including clunky voter record systems that lead to many of the lines and delays in polling places.

So the HuffPost question is apposite to that point, but still not quite right. It’s not an either/or but rather a comparison of:

  • old-school paper ballots and 19th century election fraud;
  • old-school machine voting and 20th century lost ballots;
  • old-school combo system of paper ballots machine counting and botched re-counting;
  • new-fangled machine voting (e-voting) and 21st century lost ballots;
  • newer combo system of paper ballots and machine counting (not voting).

Here are the talking points:

  • Old-school paper ballots where cast by hand and counted by hand, where the counters could change the ballot, for example a candidate Smith partisan could invalidate a vote for Jones by adding a mark for Smith.
  • These and other paper ballot frauds in the 19th century drove adoption in the early 20th century of machine voting, on the big clunky “level machines” with the satisfying ka-thunk-swish of the level recording the votes and opening the privacy curtain.
  • However, big problem with machine votingno ballots! Once that lever is pulled, all that’s left is a bunch of dials and counters on the backside being increased by one. In a close election that requires a re-count, there are no ballots to examine! Instead the best you could do is re-read each machine’s totals and re-run the process of adding them all up in case there was an arithmetic error.
  • Also, the dials themselves, after election day but before a recount, were a tempting target for twiddling, for the types of bad actors who in the 19th century fiddled with ballot boxes.
  • Later in the 20th century, we saw a move to a combo system of paper ballots and machine counting, with the intent that the machine counts were more accurate than human counts and more resistant to human meddling, yet the paper ballots remaining for recounts, and for audits of the accuracyof machinery of counting.
  • Problem: these were the punch ballots of the infamous hanging chad.
  • Early 21st century: run from hanging chad to electronic voting machines.
  • Problem: no ballots! Same as before, only this time, the machins are smaller and much easier to fiddle with. That’s “e-voting” but wihout ballots.
  • Since then, a flimsy paper record was bolted on to most of these systems to support recount and audit.
  • But the trend has been to go back to the combo system, this time with durable paper ballots and optical-scanning machinery for counting.
  • Is that e-voting? well, it is certainly computerized counting. And the next wave is computer-assisted marking of paper ballots — particularly for voters with disabilities — but with these machine-created ballots counted the same as hand-marked ballots.

Bottom line: whether or not you call it e-voting, so long as there are both computers and human-countable durable paper ballots involved, the combo provides the best assurance that niether humans nor computers are mis-counting or interfering with voters casting ballots.

— EJS

PS: If you catch us on HP online, please let us know what you thought!

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.

— EJS

North Carolina Voting Machines Lessons Learned, Part Two

Last time, I wrote about what I learned from two curious statements in the context of the NC experience with and litigation about flakey voting machines. Today is Part Two, starting by explaining what I mean by “flakey”, and finishing with a response to Johnnie McLean’s (NC SBE deputy director) statement at the conclusion of the litigation.

When I say “flakey voting machine” I simply mean that the machine in question is prone to mis-behavior that leaves the voter with low confidence that their votes were recorded correctly. Examples from this election include both touch-screen misbehavior and opscan machines accepting one sheet of a two-sheet ballot and rejecting the other sheet. What do I mean by “prone to”? Just that mis-behavior has frequently been alleged, even if some allegations proved unfounded. When I see a voting machine behaving in a way that I see as strange, it’s just a fact that I’m not going the confident about the outcome, even if someone explains that the voting machine is just fine and the behavior was my problem.

And that “not my computers’ fault” explanation is what’s behind Ms. McLean’s remarks:

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.

That’s sensible at one level, but completely misses the point at another level. Ms. McLean is being sensible when she points out that there were no cases of a voting machine mal-functioning by mis-counting votes, and that most of the incidents were from machine mis-behavior caused by user error. And yes, the mis-behavior was caused in part by people touching the screen in multiple places, so you could say that it was the “voter’s fault.” Technically, it might be true to say that these machines were operating “according to spec” which includes: if you calibrate them tightly and a user touches a screen in exactly the wrong way, the user will see some weird stuff that is not what they meant.

But that is missing the point. Even when these devices are operating “correctly”, they can easily mis-behave. From the perspective of a voting machine vendor, these devices are operating “correctly” when they get confused by a voter doing multiple simultaneous moving touches. It’s not that the voting systems are inherently un-reliable in counting votes (or at least no less unreliable than software in general). Rather, these particular NC systems are inherently flakey. They just weren’t designed for or built with technology that supports very-low-error operation by ordinary people in the wide variety of typical circumstances. Of course not! This is not your typical iPad — but rather 20 year old screen technology in some cases. This is not your typical iPhone running an award-winning iPhone app, developed with sophisticated usability testing — but rather a somewhat hastily-assembled system created about 8 years ago to cheaply and quickly get to market to be the first to soak up HAVA funding.

Of course, NC voters deserve better than these current systems. And NC taxpayers deserve better+cheaper than the perhaps-a-bit-better but quite expensive replacements that vendors offer, but many election officials literally can’t afford. It’s just that in the US voting systems market today, you just can’t get what you deserve, never mind how important high-confidence elections are.

— EJS

(PS: and we continue to work on fixing that!)

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.

— EJS

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 …

— EJS

ATOMS=GOOD, ELECTRONS=BAD?

Seems to me that I’ve seen more interesting videos, alarming articles, and research studies of problems with e-voting than with old-fashioned hand-count paper ballot elections. We hear about many ways and reasons to doubt election results that use machines in some part of the process, and about how “all manual count” elections are the “gold standard.” Good soundbites.

But I wonder:

Are there actually any elections that are “all manual”?

I don’t think so. Certainly the tabulation of results, the transport of results up the chain, the tracking of warehouses full of ballots, the design of ballots, the collection of voter registrations, and the creation and management of poll books, must use computers all along the chain. Is there a single state or county where computers are used for none of these activities? I suspect not.

So, where are the cool videos and PR campaigns illustrating the ways in which an all manual count could be compromised? I’ve seen magicians do some impossible things while manipulating pieces of paper. And there are a lot of magicians.

And by the way, we also use computers… to control whether and in what direction to launch missiles,  to control the brakes in my car (oops, bad example :),  to “land a man on the moon”, and of course our whole financial system only exists inside of the black boxes that are called computers.

Yeah I know the litany of differences between these applications and elections. I am well aware of them. But the differences don’t stop me from questioning the ultra-black-and-white, ultra-soundbite, that I hear all the time:

computers/internet=BAD, manual/physical=GOOD

It might as well be

atoms=GOOD, electrons=BAD

I know as a society we don’t like nuance, but as people who are devoted to making things better, techies and non-techies alike, I’d like to see and read fewer statements like: “We will never ever do X”, “Y is the absolute only way to do this.”

Things are never that black and white. And while we may need to keep it simple to win the argument, it’s more than about just winning the argument. It’s about discovering real weaknesses (and there are always trade-offs — I can hear the black-and-white crowd saying: “We should not ever make ANY trade-offs when it comes to our Democracy”, which is my point, exactly) and so we should always be seeking honest ways of imagining and testing to discover true improvements.

Childhood Ballot Confessions

I have to admit, I like paper ballots. But it wasn’t always that way. As a small child, I remember going into the voting booth with a parent, and watching them use those fine old lever machines. They were cool. The curtain made it seem like something both secret and important was happening. The little flippy switches made a satisfying little “tick” sound when you flipped them down to make a selection, and nice “tock” sound if you changed your mind and flipped one back up again. And of course the best part was hearing the thing click and clack after you pulled the big lever.

But although it was cool as a machine, and the whole voting thing was groovy, I had a twinge while looking at the little floppy switches flipping themselves back up again. It was like all this important secret stuff we did in the booth … just sort of evaporated. Sure, the clicking and clacking was the machine “remembering” each vote, but it was odd to see.

Years later when I started to vote myself, I found it very satisfying and reassuring to be using a paper ballot, especially after the run-around I got trying to vote for the first time. I felt more confident seeing a durable ballot recording my votes, and not evaporating.

More recently, experimenting with using a Direct-Record Election device (DRE), it was back to the future, with the ballot evaporating again — and without even seeing a ballot per se, like front panel of the old lever machine. As Doug Jones wrote here recently, our touch-screens are digital DREs just as the lever machines were mechanical DREs. The little paper tapes were certainly an improvement, but flimsy enough that it was a small improvement. If you’re going to print something for me, please have it be a real paper ballot, I thought the first time. So, I now understand that I like the approach of ballot-marking devices used by those that aren’t able to or don’t wish to mark by ballots by hand.

Is there a point to this personal history of feelings about ballots?
A small one, both a link back to my posting about eMailed ballot return, and a future one on Internet voting. The point is that I think that voter confidence depends in part on the voters’ understanding the voting method that they are using. If you ask or allow voters to do something new, but which seems similar to voting that they already understand, then they can “get it” — which is why eMail return makes sense for voters because it’s like vote-by-mail that they understand. So, if people are used to a ballot — as I am — then a change is going to make the most sense if I can still understand where the ballot is, and what happens to it.

— EJS

Kudos to Cuyahoga

I was very encouraged by recent election news from Ohio’s Cuyahoga County, reported in the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper: Reason for election machine glitch found, officials expect things to be OK for the primary. At first blush, it might seem like bad news:

All told, 89 of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections‘  1,200 machines powered down and then froze during a specific test done to ensure the optical scanners were reading paper ballots correctly.

But as the Plain Dealer’s Joan Mazzoli said in her folksy headline, the point is that the Cuyahoga BOE disclosed to the public exactly the problems that they encountered, the scope of the problems, and the possible effect on the election that will be conducted with machines that they tested. In fact BOE director Jane Platten explained the specific error logging procedures that they will use to audit the election, to make sure that no votes are lost even if the machines malfunction during the election. As Mazzoli quoted Platten:

We want to ensure everyone’s votes are counted.

Of course that is every election official’s goal, but this news is about a bit more: making sure that everyone’s votes are counted, and “making sure” in a way that the voters can see and believe in despite known problems with the election technology being used. That is what I call helping people Trust the Vote, and for that I say – Kudos to Cuyahoga!

— EJS