Sunday, February 26, 2006

Voting machines: A scandal that isn't (updated)

It's 2005, an off-year election (if there's an election in your area at all). So, why am I writing about voting machines, a big issue in 2000 and 2004?

After the 2000 election, a lot of people were convinced that if only a complete recount were allowed, Gore would have beaten Bush. My response to them is that there is simply no way to know. Different recounts performed by the same group of media came up with different results. Votes that were never cast or lost in various ways could never be recovered. And, the prospect of election workers attempting to figure out “voter intent” by examining incorrectly punched ballots is just asking for a biased result. If the margin of victory were large, using this type of procedure wouldn't effect the result. Given that the error in the voting process was systematic, the only way to solve the problem would have been to have the entire state recast its ballots. Of course, a recount of the disputed counties was blocked and Bush was declared victorious by approximately 500 votes.

Now, fast forward to 2004. Democratic partisans like to point out that electronic voting machines were used in the 2004 election in Ohio, the state that swung the election towards Bush. The machines were made by Diebold, a company whose owner was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president1. The difference here was that the margin of victory in Ohio was greater than the number of disputed votes. Even if all the disputed votes were cast for Kerry, Bush would have won the state. Votes that were never cast, of course, cannot be recounted. So, the only possibility (I know of) that could have swung the election was tampering with the ballots themselves. This is a situation where no recounts would ever solve the problem. If the ballots were cast incorrectly, and there is no voter-verifiable paper trail, they are lost forever.

The possibility that the voting machines could be manipulated was well known, but whether it had actually happened was conjecture until Black Box Voting2 sued to obtain the logs from Palm Beach County, Florida voting machines (made by Sequoia, not Diebold). They report that the logs contain date discrepancies in recorded votes (specifically, votes recorded on dates other than election day on machines that were only used on election day), and a number of strange errors. While there is no evidence yet that any votes were changed, there is mounting evidence that the machines are not doing their jobs correctly, and that some votes were lost (when the mechines were powered down on election day).

A democracy requires an elections system that is trusted by all its citizens. The American system is on the verge of losing this trust (if it hasn't already). The two advantages of voting machine technology over paper ballots are increased handicapped accessibility and rapid, accurate counting. The disadvantages are that the votes have no real existence, and, in a badly designed system, are subject to unverifiable manipulation.

The technological problems with the machines can be fixed. Taxpayers are paying for the machines. They should not have to sue to obtain the records, and there should be no claims that any databases used in the administration of elections are owned by the voting machine company.3 In the best case, voting machines should be:

All of these technologies are used regularly in other fields. Banks regularly and securely process large amounts of data from far-away local machines. Votes should be treated with equal or greater importance.

1 Of course, as a citizen, the owner of a voting machine-maker has equal free speech rights to support whatever candidate he chooses. But, given how much actual control he and his company have over the process of the elections, an extra amount of transparency in the machines would go a long way to quieting conspiracy theorists. Diebold has been anything but transparent.

2 Engineers use the term “black box” to refer to any equipment that they don't know how it works. A car with its hood welded shut would be a black box, in this sense. It can be interacted with through the controls that the driver is allowed to see (the steering wheel, pedals, transmission stick), but it can't be determined what those controls do internally.

Update:
3 Brad Blog documents the shenanigans to date in trying to gain access to the voting records from the 2004 elections in Alaska. First, the state refused to release them, on the grounds that their contract with Diebold stated that they were property of the company. Second, the company and state reached an agreement where the records would be released, but only if the company could manipulate them first. Now, the state has blocked their release on the grounds that the public having the voting records would pose a threat to the state's security.

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Comments:
The coming election in NY State this fall(for Governor and Senator)will be a nightmare. NY has not yet decided on the machine to use and are going to let the machine maker lobbyists decide on the machine. The republican state senate is doing all that is possible to guarantee an election that cannot be verified(they are terrified of losing control of the senate.) We should have a national standard established by an independent commission on the machines that must be used by all states
 
Over here, we have optically scanned paper. There may be errors in the way the machine handles the results or the machines may be tampered with (we don't know), but, there is always a paper backup.
 
Anonymous said:
The coming election in NY State this fall(for Governor and Senator)will be a nightmare.
It probably won't be experienced as a nightmare. With the exception of the machines breaking down (which is quite visible), most of these voting machine problems happen in the backends of the system. Unless someone goes out and audits whatever logs and records exist afterwards, there is no way anyone will know what really happened. Even if an audit reveals definitively that there was tampering or rampant machine failure, without a paper trail, the flawed results end up being the official results. Systematic errors like those can't be corrected through recounts.
 
Colleagues of mine are working on this issue in NYC and ratcheting up the pressure:

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/24/nyregion/24vote.html?_r=1&oref=slogin&pagewanted=print

Daniel
 
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