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Vote Adding Machine Problems in FL -- We Have to Fix That!

Despite today's blog docket being for RockTheVote, I just can't resist pointing out a recurring type of technology-triggered election dysfunction that is happening again, and is 100% preventable using election technology that we have already developed. Here's the scoop: in St. Lucie County, Florida, the LEOs are having trouble coming up with a county wide grand total of votes, because their adding machine (for totting up the the subtotals from dozens of voting machines) has a great feature for human error. The full details are bit complex in terms of handling of data sticks and error messages, but I've been told that in early voting in 94 precincts, 40 precincts weren't counted at all, and 54 were counted twice. Thank goodness someone noticed afterwards! (Well, 108 precincts totaled out of 94 might have been a tip off.) Sure, human error was involved, but it is not a great situation where software allows this human error to get through.

We're only talking about software that adds up columns of numbers here! A much better solution would be one where the software refuses to add in any sub-total more than once, and refuses to identify as a finished total anything where there is a sub-total missing. Of course! And I am sure that the vendor of St. Lucie's GEMS system has a fix for this problem in some later version of the software or some successor product. But that's just not relevant if an election official doesn't have the time, budget, support contract, or procurement authority to test the better upgrade, and buy it if it works satisfactorily!

What's sad is that it is completely preventable by using an alternative adding machine like the one we developed last year (OK, shameless plug) -- which of course does all these cross-checks. The LEOs would need to translate that vendor-proprietary subtotal data into a standard format -- and I know some volunteer programmers who I bet would do that for them. They'd need to use an ordinary PC to run the open source tabulation software -- and I know people who would set it up for them as a public service.  And they'd have to spend less than half an hour using the system to get their totals, and comparing them to the totals that their GEMS system provided.

And maybe, in order for it to be kosher, it would have to be a "pilot effort" with oversight by the EAC; we've already discussed that with them and understand that the resource requirements are modest.  I bet we could find a FL philanthropist who would underwrite the costs without a 2nd thought other than how small the cost was compared to the public benefit of the result - that is, avoiding one more day of delay in a series that's causing a State to not be done with the election, more than a week after election day.

It's just one example of the many possible election integrity benefits that can be demonstrated using technology that, so far at any rate, only non-commercial technologists have been willing to develop for governments to use to do their job correctly -- in this case, producing timely and accurate election results.

-- EJS


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TrustTheVote on HuffPost

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

  • @HuffPostLive or

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 voting -- no 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!

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NJ Election Officials, Displaced Voters, Email Ballots, and more

There's plenty of activity in the NY/NJ area reacting to voters' difficulties because of Super-Storm Sandy, including being displaced from their homes or otherwise unable to get to polling places. As always, the role of technology captured my attention. But first, the more important points. Some displaced people are having trouble even finding a place to shelter temporarily, so extra special kudos to those that manage to vote, whatever the method of voting they use. Likewise, extra praise for NJ and NY election officials putting in the extra extra-hours to be available to voters in advance of the election, inform them about changed polling places, and equip them to get the word out to their neighbors. The amount of effort on both sides is a great indicator of how seriously people take this most important form of civic activity.

Next, the technology, and then the policy. On the technology front, Gov. Christie of NJ announced an emergency (and I hope temporary) form of voting for displaced voters: sending an absentee ballot via email. That's a bad idea in the best of circumstances -- for several reasons including the vulnerability of the email data in transit and at rest, and the control of the e-ballot by people who are not election officials -- and these are not the best of circumstances. For example, I doubt that in every county elections office in NJ, somebody has a complete list of the people with access to the email server and the ability to view and modify data on it.  But while you can see that Christie's heart in the right place, there are several issues beyond these, as described in a NJ news report here.

And this is only one of the emergency measures. In both NJ and NY people can cast a provisional ballot at any polling location -- see NJ's announcement here, and if you have the similar one for NY, please provide it as a comment!

Finally, on the policy side, it's not even clear what these ballots represent, and that's the policy problem. My legal and policy colleagues here at TTV, and in the legal side of the election integrity community, certainly know more, but I don't! Are the provisional ballots cast under these emergency rules required to be processed exactly the same as non-emergency provisional ballots? Are the e-mailed ballots provisional ballots or absentee ballots? If so, what serves as the affadavit? Do the email ballots have to be followed up with the paper hardcopy that the voter scanned and faxed? (The NJ Lt. Gov. office has issued some seemingly inconsistent statements on that.) If not, what happens in a recount? If so, why email the ballot at all, rather than just emailing a "my ballot is coming soon" message?

I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. The general issue is that in the case of a close election (most likely a local election, but state house or congress, you never know!) there will be some of these not-exactly-your-regular ballots involved, and the potential for real disputes -- starting with concerns over dis-enfranchisement of people mis-informed about how to do a "displaced vote", and going all the way to dispute about whether counted ballots should have been counted, and whether uncounted ballots should be counted. But let's hope that it does not in fact get that messy in NY and NJ, and that every voter is able to make the extra efforts for their ballot to be cast and counted.

-- EJS



Election Transparency Must be Apolitical

For those of you who have been following the recount saga in Wisconsin, here is a bit of news, and a reflection on that. So, the news from a couple of days ago (I'm just catching up) is that the process of re-counting is complete, but the resolution of that close election may not be.  The re-counting did not change which candidate is leading, and apparently expanded the margin slightly.

Trailing candidate Joanne Kloppenburg explains her motivation for the recount in a newspaper letter to the editor, building on the old but true assertion that, "One may be entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts."

We steer clear of political food fights, and I have no opinion on her motivation. But we are all about transparency and transparency should not have any political agenda attached.

To that end, what Kloppenburg does point about some of the irregularities, problems, and issues with the re-counting process (which are not the same as the problems with the original count), including lack of physical security on ballots, and uncertainty as to whether the re-counted ballots were the same ballots as the originally counted ones -- are reasonable questions about transparency.  More importantly, Kloppenburg offers some reflections about the re-count that are important and correctly apolitical:

When races are this close, there is a significant public interest established both by statute and by common sense in determining that votes were counted and counted accurately.

This election was close, and there were many who have expressed doubts about whether it was clean. The right to vote is fundamental. It is a right that courageous people fight and die for every day.  In America, that right carries with it a promise: that elections are fair and open, that election results are untainted by deceit or fraud, and that the electoral process provides every eligible voter with an equal opportunity to privately and independently cast a ballot.

In order to make that promise real, there are appropriate and established steps that help make sure the outcome of elections, when in doubt, can withstand scrutiny. That, no more and no less, is exactly why this recount is so important.

That is, in fact, a fine description of the purpose of a recount.

It's unfortunate that in this particular case, the re-count process seems to have a similar or greater level of problems that cast doubt on the result.  We can only hope that the full scope of the process, warts and all, becomes transparent to the public.

For me, I find that regardless of candidate or political preferences, there is a point couched in the last two sentences excerpted from her letter that matters most:

...there are appropriate and established steps that help make sure the outcome of elections, when in doubt, can withstand scrutiny

Transparency in process.  There should be nothing political about that.




Tabulator Troubles in Colorado

More tabulator troubles! In addition to the continuing saga in New York with the tabulator troubles I wrote about earlier, now there is another tabulator-related situation in Colorado. The news report from Saguache County CO is about:

a Nov. 5 “retabulation” of votes cast in the Nov. 2 election Friday by Myers and staff, with results reversing the outcome ...

In brief, the situation is exactly about the "tabulation" part of election management, that I have been writing about. To recap:

  • In polling places, there are counting devices that count up votes from ballots, and spit out a list of vote-counts for each candidate in each contest, and each option in each referendum. This list is in the form of a vote-count dataset on some removable storage.
  • At county election HQ, there are counting devices that count up vote-by-mail ballots and provisional ballots, with the same kind of vote-counts.
  • At county election HQ, "tabulation" is the process aggregating these vote-counts and adding them up, to get county-wide vote totals.

In Saguache, election officials did a tabulation run on election night, but the results  didn't look right. Then on the 5th, they did a re-run on the "same ballots" but the results were different, and it appears to some observers that some vote totals may be been overwritten. Then, on the 8th, with another re-try, a result somewhat like in NY:

... the disc would not load and sent an error message

What this boils down to for me is that current voting system products' Tabulators are not up to correctly doing some seemingly simple tasks correctly, when operated by ordinary election officials. I am sure they work right in testing situations that include vendor staff; but they must also work right in real life with real users. The tasks include:

  • Import an election definition that specifies how many counting devices are being used for each precinct, and how many vote-count datasets are expect from them.
  • Import a bunch of vote-count datasets.
  • Cross-check to make sure that all expected vote-totals are present, and that there are no un-expected vote-counts.
  • Cross-check each vote-count dataset to make sure it is consistent with the election definition.
  • If everything cross-checks correctly, add up the counts to get totals, and generate some reports.

That's not exactly dirt-simple, but it also sounds to me like something that could be implemented in well-designed software that is easy for election officials to use, and easy for observers to understand. And that understanding is critical, because without it, observers may suspect that the election has been compromised, and some election results are wrong. That is a terrible outcome that any election official would work hard to avoid -- but it appears that's what is unfolding in Saguache. Stay tuned ...

-- EJS

PS: Hats off to the Valley Courier's Teresa L. Benns for a really truly excellent news article! I have only touched on some of the issues she covered. Her article has some of the best plain-language explanation of complicated election stuff, that I have ever read. Please take a minute to at least scan her work. - ejs



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 ...

-- EJS


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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.

-- EJS

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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



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



Pennsylvania Paperless Recount

I wrote before that this month's re-count activity in Pennsylvania was notable because of the variety of voting methods used there, and hence the variety of recounting methods needed. In contrast to the Lackawanna county that I mentioned specifically, there are many counties in PA that use completely paperless DRE voting machines. In these cases, there are no actual ballots to recount, nor are there paper-trail tape-rolls to examine. As a result, the recount is more a matter of re-obtaining the vote totals from the DREs, re-doing the tabulation that adds up the machines' vote totals for the recounted contest, in order to re-compute the election result. This is similar in principle to re-counts of PA's old lever machines, where the re-count involved re-inspection of counters on the back of each lever machine. One difference in practice, though, is that the lever machine counters could be directly inspected by a person, who would have little doubt that the totals they gather from each machine were in fact recorded by that machine. The DRE's vote totals are stored re-writable digital storage media that are often separated from the machine itself. And as we saw recently in Myrtle Beach, human error can play a role in that separation.

So, election geek that I am, I'm waiting with interest to hear about the various re-counting methods used, the variances found, how the variance get accounted for, and so on. It should be a very interesting comparison of different means to the same end that one Lackawanna County candidate expressed so well:

Every vote should count. It's hard enough to get the people to come out and vote. ... The election process is under shadow.

Removing that shadow is what PA officials are working hard to do in a scant week of efforts, that along with the efforts of many public-spiritied observers, could teach us all a lot about how recount methods can create transparency as restore trust that every vote counts.

-- EJS



Recounts in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has ordered a statewide recount of the race for Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge - a recount that is similar in scope and significance as the Minnesota Franken/Coleman recount (though one hopes less acrimonious), as the result will decide who will be making durable rulings in law for the whole state. It's an interesting story, for at least a couple reasons. This recount is also the first one performed under the PA state law that automatically triggers a full recount when a contest's margin of victory is by less than one-half of 1 percent of the total votes cast. It's also interesting because of the variety of voting technology across the state, and hence the variety of re-counting methods and results. For example, in Lackawanna County, which was already doing local-race recounting a few days ago, County Commissioner Mike Washo was quoted:

We share the concerns of everyone who came here to talk about having every vote count. We're going to ensure that every vote is counted. The good news is, with paper, we have the ballots.

Even so, there is still controversy there, because the re-count is using equipment that is similar to the counting equipment that had the apparent failures that caused Lackawanna County officials to do the recount in the first place. Despite the 2% hand recount, some are wishing for 100% hand recount in addition to the machine recount.

In other counties, no doubt the local variations in voting methods will drive different concerns and controversies. But the compare-and-contrast possibilities of this statewide recount should be very instructive. Stay tuned ...

-- EJS



What's a Ballot Counter For?

I'm hearing lots of fascinating stuff at the NIST Common Data Format Workshop, but a couple of items really struck me this morning: the contrast between a presentation by a voting system vendor, and a developer of an open source balloting device prototype. Neither of them explicitly asked a very good question about central or precinct count optical scan devices that count paper ballots: what is a ballot counting device for? One obvious answer is "to count votes." Another answer is "to find votes on paper ballots, and count the votes." But this addresses only the easy case in which a voter votes correctly on every contest, sufficiently legibly for the software to recognize every mark with very high contest. So I would say something bit less pithy: "to try to find votes on paper ballots, count the votes is possible, and inform the user or operator of cases where it isn't possible."

What about the rest of the time? The open source guy had a rather different comment: "Election officials should not be asked to capture voter intent." Fair enough! As a combo techie/activist/lobbyist, that is a fine position for him to advocate. But I'm a bit more pragmatic about what happens today, particularly in the increasingly common case of centrally tabulated paper ballots, typically vote-by-mail cases. When there are marks that are not sufficiently legible, or missing, or apparently too many marks, there is no voter there to ask to re-try. The way U.S. elections work today, officials are responsible for capturing voter intent in the cases where the software can't do the job with high confidence.

By contrast, the voting system vendor person talked about their open data format (or soon to be open; they haven't published it yet). One part that leapt out at me is the ballot-record dataset, which includes info about whether or not a ballot needs adjudication, or has been adjudicated by an election official. Well, of course I like that, because it is very similar to what we're doing in our open-source ballot counting software, including the next step that we will take, of recording everything about every ballot-adjudication case, and enabling publishing of these records for transparency.

So the vendor's remarks led to a better definition of the basic function of a ballot counting device: to take a batch of ballots, and separate it into 2 groups, those that require human interpretation, and those that software was able to count with high confidence. A whole lot follows forward from there, but that is a basic starting point, based on the realities of U.S. election practices today.

-- EJS



To Trust or Not to Trust, That is the Question

I thought I'd share a comment and response I got about trusting software to count votes. The comment was a very sensible one, though a mis-perception: that TTV is suggesting that software should be trust to count vote correctly. Not so! Here is the true but less simple story.

  • Many election officials want to conduct elections with paper ballots.
  • Most of those election officials want to count paper ballots using optical scanning and analysis software.
  • Most of those election officials conduct statistical audits, in order to mitigate risk that the tabulation software malfunctioned in a way could have effected the election result.

In other words, the latter group of election officials don't trust the software to do the vote counting right, and use selective hand-count audit in addition to software counting.

  • TTV development of scanning/tabulation software does not depend on the election officials' choices on how to conduct audits as part of an optical scan/tabulation method.

In other words, we don't make any assumptions about whether or how people trust software, and what additional non-technological steps they take to mitigate risk. To repeat what you may have heard me say before, we just make the technology; we don't tell the administrators how to deal with the risks that they manage, but we do listen to them to make sure that we're making technology that they can manage in the way that they want to. If their audit scheme can be improved by new features of the software, then we want to learn enough to provide features that are truly helpful.

-- EJS



Dozens of Close Elections Per Year

One of the main goals of the TrustTheVote Project is to increase voter confidence in election results, by the use of election technology that is substantially more trustworthy and transparent than similar technology in use today. One of the main reasons for the importance of this mission is the experience of some high profile close elections in the last few years. But how frequent are "close elections" really? Speaking for myself, the handful or so of very high profile close elections, taken together, is plenty enough reason for me to work toward those goals. Of course, there are thousands of local elections every election cycle, and many of them are "close" -- or at least close enough (margins low in 3 digits of votes) that voter technology error could have skewed the results.

But  I recently learned that the incidence of close elections is much higher than I imagined. The state of New Jersey recently issued a report on close elections in NJ, supplemented by healthy slug of supporting data. My thanks, again, to the erstwhile Joe Hall for pointing me to it, and for this summary of a single year of close elections in NJ:

In the last year, eight elections were decided by a single vote, and 66 elections had a margin of less than 1%.

Wow! Extrapolate nation-wide, and you've got a substantial portion of the electorate residing in an electoral district with an election close enough to doubt the accuracy of the count. And local elections for local offices are often the ones that have the most local effects for voters. So, for the one third or so of people who polls report as doubtful about correctness of vote counts, I'd say a whole lot of them could conclude (if they knew the type of stats we're seeing from NJ) that at least once in their voting history, an election went the wrong way.

Now, I have no way of assessing the truth of that claim, but it is the belief that is the important part, rather than a guess at likelihood or the importance of the office elected. Putting the one-third poll results together with these stats from NJ, I see a simply un-acceptable degree of un-confidence in our election system to deliver. And where technology is part of those doubts, then I think that TrustTheVote can help. That's true both for more reliable technology, and for cases where increased transparency can increase trust in the process.

That's my motivator for the week!

-- EJS



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.

-- EJS



More Twisted Logic: How Voting Machines Eat Pretzels

In a recent posting, I tried to give a flavor of the pretzel logic that derives from the crazy quilt of state-specific rules for counting ballots -- with a particularly notorious case from straight-party voting. The next question is, given this crazy quilt, what is a voting system supposed to do? Before answering that today, let me recap what a voting system is, for some more recent readers. Loosely speaking, a voting system is a set of hardware and software that are used for casting and counting ballots, preparing for casting/counting, and completing the tabulation process after casting/counting.* Components can include paper ballot scanners, direct record devices, tabulating software, etc. Now, back to the problem, and the specific case of straight-party voting, with a ballot marked for a straight-party vote of a particular party, and with an "emphasis" vote for that party's candidate for a top-ticket contest, and also an "over-ride" vote for another party's candidate in a down-ticket race on the other side of a 2-sided paper ballot. What's a counting device to do? As we said before, there are various different state-specific rules about what to do.

I bring up this case to illustrate a couple key ideas about our development of the voting system components of the TTV system:

  • the construction of ballot-counting software is much more that the exercise in the digital image processing functions that we're working on now, and
  • one size does not fit all.

As a result, we have several additional tasks for the voting system. We need to incorporate the notion of configuration data that encodes state-specific rules for interpreting marks on a ballot. And we need to implement an election-preparation process that to the greatest extent possible automates these choices, informs the election officials, but does not require humans to make explicit decisions which of several interpretation methods to use -- because after all, this choice is not at the discretion of local election officials. (Note to election ninja readers: I wouldn't be surprised to hear about a case where it is a local decision!). And if that sounds complicated enough, I won't even go into even more squirrelly cases of ballot interpretation that involve disputes over whether a mark is "sufficient to be a legal mark." One squirrel a day is enough!

-- EJS

* Details for the keeners: In the TTV system we're building, we have paper ballots for manual ballot interaction, an accessible balloting device for computer-aided production of a marked ballot, and a precinct ballot counting device used for interpreting ballot marks and counting votes at the precinct level. There is a similar device for central processing of mail and provisional ballots, and another central device to tabulate results by consolidating these various counts. On the preparation end, there is a device builder that creates each election's instance of the other devices. Rounding out the tail end of the process is the TTV Auditor, which consolidates audit logs of the activity of all the devices.



Identifying the Gold: Does Open Source Help?

A good question re-surfaced for us as we participated in the National Civic Summit recently. The issue was and remains about identifying a "gold build," that is, when there is a particular system/version that is certified for use as a voting system, how should election officials know that the systems that they deployed are systems that are an instance of the certified system. Previously, we provided some answers of how you could answer the question "How do I know that this voting machine is a good one" and provide in the wiki on a more technical treatment of "field validation" of voting system devices. But the  slightly different question that arose recently is: how does open source help?

The simple answer is that  open source techniques do not directly help at all. We could build a completely open system that has exactly the same architectural blockades to field validation as the current vendors' product do. However, the TrustTheVote open source project has some advantages. First, we're working on voting systems, which have sufficiently simple functional requirements (compared to general purpose computing systems) that field validation of voting devices isn't as difficult as in the more general case. *

The second advantage allows us to sidestep many of these complexities, given the relative simplicity of voting devices. We were able to  go back to the drawing board and use an architecture that simplifies the field validation problems, for the very specific and limited class of systems that are voting devices.

Openness itself didn't create these two advantages; but in conducting a public works project, we have the freedom to start fresh and avoid basic architecture pitfalls that can undermine trust. Therefore, the value of working openly is that the benefit of this work -- increased confidence and trust -- is a bit more easily achieved because field validation is fundamentally a systems trust issue, and we address in a way that can be freely assessed by anyone. And that's where the open source approach helps.

-- EJS

* NOTE: for the detail-oriented folks: in general, the twin problems of Trusted Software Distribution and Trusted System Validation are, in their general form, truly hard problems. Feasible approaches to them usually rely on complex use of cryptography, which simply shifts the burden to other hard problems in practical applied cryptography. For example, with "code signing" my Dad's computer can tell him that it thinks he should trust some new software because is it signed as being from his SW vendor (e.g., Microsoft or HP); but he wonders (rightly) why he should trust his computer's judgment in this matter, given the other mistakes that his computer makes. For more on the non-general voting-system-friendly solution, see the TrustTheVote wiki:



Twisted Logic: How Ballots Get Counted in the Real World

Today I'm going to give a flavor of the pretzel logic that applies to the way ballots are counted in the U.S. An alternative title for this post might be "Welcome to the real world of Federal Democracy" because several states have their own different pretzel. You can have 2 marked ballots, each in a different state, but very very similar; but in one case the ballot is completely kosher, while in the other place some votes won't count. The reason, of course, is variations in states' election law and regulation, and in local jurisdiction's practices in applying the law and regs. Probably the classic case, or perhaps the most infamous, is the "straight-party vote". This is a voting method available in some states, where the ballot design contains a "convenience" (exercise for the reader: who it's convenient for, and who benefits) for filling one bubble in order to indicate a vote for several candidates -- all the candidates for a single political party. However, when a voter marks a straight-party bubble on a ballot, they are not finished! In most cases, there are non-partisan elections as well (city council, school board, water district, ...) and ballot measures or referenda. To complete the ballot, a voter must make a mark for these other items on the ballot. Now, the straight-party voting option might be convenient, but it also raises the question of interpretation of subsequent "unnecessary" marks for candidates in partisan offices. These may be construed as meaningful to the voter -- so-called "emphasis votes" or "over-rride votes" -- or as an accident, mistaking a partisan election for a non-partisan one that is not covered by the straight-party option.

Let's look at some of the cases, in a hypothetical election where:

  • the top of the ticket is the U.S. Presidential election including candidates
    • A. Beaucoup of the Peace-and-Freedom party, and
    • B. Yovon of the Conservative-Independent party;
  • there are other Federal and state offices with partisan elections, including a state assembly contest in the middle of the ballot, including candidates
    • C. Bonichose for Peace-and-Freedom, and
    • D. Yamhill for Conservative-Independent.

Now, suppose a voter marks a ballot this way:

  1. She selects the Conservative-Independent option for a straight-party vote.
  2. It seems odd to her, though, to just leave blank the ballot item for U.S. President. Just to make sure her vote counts, she also makes a selection for Yovon for President (even though she has already made a vote for Yovon, by doing the straight-party vote).
  3. The voter then turns over the page of the 2-sided ballot, and makes a mark to select Bonichose for state assembly, in an attempt to "over-ride" the straight-party vote in this one case where the voter does not favor the Conservative-Independent party candidate.

Step 2 is an example of a so-called "emphasis vote" that is not uncommon for top-of-the-ticket contests in "big elections." Step 3 is an example of an "over-ride vote" that can also be interpreted as a oversight where the voter didn't notice the party of the candidates.

But what does this ballot mean? Cases like this require rules for human and machine interpretation of these marks as valid votes, or overvotes. Both an "emphasis" and "over-ride" vote could be construed as an over-vote, a case where the voter voted in a race once, by straight-party, and again in an individual race. This might seem odd, given that in the "emphasis" case, both votes were for the same candidate! And in the "over-ride" case, some might view the vote as quite meaningful. But the meaning is (or should be) established in election law, which is specific to each state, and states with straight-party voting, what may be valid in one state is an over-vote in another, i.e., the emphasis or over-ride vote invalidates the voter's selection for the contest, and no vote for that contest should be recorded for that ballot.

So what we really have, from the point of view of voting system software requirements, is a crazy-quilt of state rules. What is a voting system developer to do? That's another twisted logic story for another day.

-- EJS



Voters Must Count

ABC News and Facebook are running one of their daily (sometimes hourly) political polls this morning with this question: Is the plan for Michigan Democrats to re-run their primary on June 3 a good idea?

So far its running about 53% to 41% against the idea.