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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

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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 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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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

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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!)

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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How to Trust a Voting Machine

[Today's guest post is from election technology expert Doug Jones, who is now revealed as also being an encyclopedia of U.S. elections history. Doug's remarks below were in a discussion about how to effectively use post-election ballot-count audits as a means to gain trust in the correct operation of voting machines -- particularly timely, given the news and comment about hacking India's voting machines. Doug pointed out that in the U.S., we've had similar voting-machine trust issues for many years. -- ejs] Lever machines have always (as used in the US) contained one feature intended for auditing:  The public and protective counters, used to record the total number of activations of the machine.  Thus, they are slightly auditable.  They are less auditable than DRE machines built to 1990 standards because they retain nothing comparable to an event log and because they do not explicitly count undervotes -- allowing election officials to claim, post election, that the reason Sam got no votes was because people abstained rather than vote for him.  (Where in fact, there might have been a bit of pencil lead jammed in the counters to prevent votes for Sam from registering).

One of the best legal opinions about mechanical voting machines was a dissenting opinion by Horatio Rogers, a Rhode Island supreme court judge, in 1897.  He was writing about the McTammany voting machine, one that recorded votes by punching holes in a paper tape out of view of the voter.  I quote:

It is common knowledge that human machines and mechanisms get out of order and fail to work, in all sorts of unforseen ways. Ordinarily the person using a machine can see a result.  Thus, a bank clerk, performing a check with figures, sees the holes; an officer of the law, using a gibbet by pressing a button, sees the result accomplished that he sought; and so on ad infinitum. But a voter on this voting machine has no knowledge through his senses that he has accomplished a result.  The most that can be said is, if the machine worked as intended, then he has made his holes and voted.  It does not seem to me that this is enough.

I think Horatio Rogers opinion applies equally to the majority of mechanical and DRE machines that have been built in the century since he published it.

-- Doug Jones

Mandatory disclaimer:  The opinions expressed above are mine!  The various institutions with which I am affiliated don't necessarily agree.  These include the U of Iowa, and the EAC TGDC. - dj

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OSDV Foundation Called to Testify on State of CA Voting Systems Future

Gregory Miller of the OSDV Foundation will be provide testimony during State of California Hearings on Future of Elections Systems next Monday, February 8th. CA Secretary of State Debra Bowen requested elections and voting systems experts from around the country to attend and testify, and answer questions about the current election administration landscape and how California can best prepare for the future.  The Secretary noted in a prepared statement:

Demands for increased transparency and services, shrinking government budgets, and technological advances that outpace elections laws and regulations have combined to challenge what many thought were ‘permanent’ solutions developed as part of the 2002 Help America Vote ActMany in California and across the nation are ready to move in a new direction.  The question is, what should Californians seek in the next generation of voting equipment and how can new products truly serve the interests of voters?

Secretary Bowen will preside over the Hearing, joined by county elections executives from Los Angeles, Orange, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Santa Cruz and Madera counties. In addition to the testimony from OSDV, wide-ranging testimony will come from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Pew Center on States, the Federal Voting Assistance Program, representatives from every major voting system manufacturer with contracts in California, and more.  The complete agenda is available here.

California has a strong record of thoughtful analysis of its voting systems. In 2007, Secretary Bowen led a top-to-bottom review of certified voting systems. Bowen asserted from the outset that the review:

Ensure that California’s voters cast their ballots on voting systems that are secure, accurate, reliable, and accessible.

And following the top-to-bottom review, on August 3, 2007, Secretary Bowen strengthened the security requirements and use conditions for certain systems.

So its no surprise to us that continuing developments in the elections technology industry as well as legislative initiatives are leading the Secretary to conduct this Hearing next Monday.  Part of that change is best evidenced by the MOVE Act.

We'll discuss more about the MOVE Act in other posts, but in summary, President Obama signed the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment (MOVE) Act in October 2009.  The most immediate impact of the law from the State perspective has to do with the provision that establishes a 45-day deadline for States to provide ballots to voters. Because Primary results need to be certified and General ballots need to be constructed and conveyed, additional time (beyond 45 days) is required to meet the new federal guideline.  And the largest impact on elections technology, processes, and practices is two principle provisions of the Act that mandate States shall provide:

  1. A digital means by which overseas voters can verify and manage their voter registration status; and
  2. A digital means by which an overseas voter can receive a digital, download ready, blank ballot (think PDF).

Success in implementing these mandates will reduce lost participation of overseas voters, which studies have shown result in approximately 1 out of every 4 overseas  ballots not being counted because of failure to arrive in time.

But if it were only that easy.  You see, in 2008, many States changed their Primary dates by several months to allow their voters to more heavily impact the presidential nomination process.  And additional moves are likely in 2010 because 11 states and the District of Columbia have Primaries so close to the General Election that ballots may not be produced in time to comply with the new MOVE Act law.  California has a very large overseas and military voting contingent, and you can imagine MOVE Act mandates are on the minds of CA elections officials, State legislatures, and the Secretary.

Of equal interest, Los Angeles County, the largest election jurisdiction in the United States, is engaged in a process known as the Voting Systems Assessment Project (VSAP) to determine the design of their next generation voting system.

Serving over 4 million registered voters, the County is examining the ways in which it can modernize its voting systems.  Dean Logan, the County Registrar and Ken Bennett, the County IT Director are working to analyze the ways in which technology can ensure their ability to meet operational mandates and better serve their voters.  With the VSAP underway (a project the OSDV Foundation is participating in), our "take" is that more (and possibly dramatic) change in elections technology in the great State of California is all but assured.

Stepping back, the current voting technology used in Los Angeles County and elsewhere is provided by private companies; they offer election jurisdictions proprietary technology solutions that need to be certified by the CA Secretary of State. While there is oversight at a State level, and mandates at the Federal level, each jurisdiction must purchase their own technology and do the very important business of conducting elections. Consequently, jurisdictions find themselves in multi-year contracts for technology.

This gives a jurisdiction continuity, but impairs their ability to innovate and collaborate, learning from neighboring or similar jurisdictions elsewhere in the state or country.

With L.A. County -- the largest elections jurisdiction in the nation -- considering the future of elections technology for their voters, the mandates of the MOVE Act implementation bearing down, and the complexities of the largest States' processes and regulations for selection and implementation of elections technology, the Secretary's Hearing next week is of a near essential nature.

So we are honored to be asked to testify next week.  And the timing is good.  As a means to developing a holistic architecture for next generation systems, one of the imperative elements is a common data format for the exchange of election event data.  This is one particular element we're working on right now.  In fact, we will shortly be collaborating with a group of States and jurisdictions on the testing of several framework components including: election event management, ballot preparation, and automated generation of printable ballots (watch for this announcement shortly).

Here’s the cool thing: It turns out that all of this work currently underway in the TrustTheVote Project which is leveraging this common data format and some other innovations, provides a ready-made open source freely available solution to implement the mandates of the MOVE Act.

So, we hope that this work will prove to be relevant and purposeful for the Hearings.  Our opportunity to testify is timely because we believe our work is in line with the agenda driving the hearing: What do next generation systems look like and how do states like CA comply with Federal mandates? How can we develop quickly to adapt to changing needs on the ground from elections officials, voters, and federal requirements?

We're excited to participate; go Greg!

For interested viewers, there will be a webcast available here.  And the event will likely be carried live on Cal Channel Television.

Stay tuned; more to come. -Matt

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Voting System Certified in New York

New York state recently certified two voting systems, and the end of the process is an interesting insight into current certification and standards -- particularly the view of the dissent-voting participant, Bo Lipari, who explained his vote in his blog My Vote on NY Voting Machine Certification. It's certainly worth reading Bo's complete rationale, but I think that the most important take-away is very aptly expressed by today's guest blogger, Candice Hoke, the Director of the Center for Election Integrity and Associate Professor of Law at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University. I read Bo Lipari's blog regarding the NY VS certification issue, and the 9:1 vote in favor of certification, with Bo's vote the only dissent. To provide a lawyer's view, I would mention that Anglo-American law includes a principle termed "substantial compliance." It has limitations and caveats, but it's worth considering how this principle might apply to the voting tech certification area, or instead be excluded from it.

At base, Bo's blog, and certification facts he presents, pose a very important question:

Do we really want voting system vendors to be able to "substantially comply" with the certification standards, or do we want to require more rigorous, complete compliance; and if so, why?

This is a critical question, of course.  Certainly, in the earlier NASED certification process, the ITAs (labs operating as Independent Testing Authorities) viewed substantial compliance to be all that was required.  The ITA view of “substantial” seemed to be inchoate and ad hoc, perhaps based on a general gestalt of the voting system product under review. As the California TTBR and other independent voting system studies documented, "substantial” offers a great deal of interpretive wiggle room.

My thanks to Candice both for posing this important question and for pointing that any answer is not going to be tidy, whether it is black-or-white, or a paler shade of gray.

-- EJS

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Election Equipment Stolen, Election Not Stolen

Thanks to erstwhile election texpert Dan Wallach for bring attention to the burglary of an early voting center in Houston, and to the Houston Chronicle's Chris Moran for coverage of the story including good quotes from Dan! But I have to add that in addition to theft of computers containing voter records, there were also voting machines (Hart InterCivic DRE devices and the central controller for them) that were not stolen, but the thieves had access to. And as I've pointed out a number of times, it's a shame that these voting systems (Hart and all the others) store vote data on re-writable media, and of course the software is equally modifiable as well. It's one thing to have these fundamentally vulnerable machines in county facilities, or temporary deployed during Election Day in polling places under the watchful eye of poll workers -- but another to leave them sitting in community center utility rooms overnight, night after night for a couple weeks. The votes (the electronic recording of e-ballots) are just sitting there protected by a lock on the door. But even more importantly, as Dan pointed out to me, the real problem is confidence in the election result. Suppose a contest in this election is close, and someone claims that the election results from this particular precinct are anomalous or suspicious. It would be impractical to prove the negative -- that the machines or the vote data were not tampered with, even though we know there was opportunity for it. Now, don't get me wrong. In this case I doubt that bad guys were trying to sway this election by jiggering a handful of DREs, using special skills to falsify the security seals on the devices, and calling attention to the deed by ripping off some PCs. But because these voting machines are vulnerable in their basic design, incidents like this one can't help but give naysayers the ability to cast doubt on the election results. We can do better -- and will.

But technology aside, I still have questions on the election officials' response to the incident. As Moran reported, yes they will check the security seals (twice!) and will assume that, absent evidence of tampering, these machines are in the same state that they left election HQ, and that the data they recorded was not effected either. But suppose that the thieves banged the machines about a bit, broke a security seal, flaked out a disk drive - or even that someone walked by with a big magnet in their pocket, and scrambled a few bits? The machines would show evidence of tampering or damage, but vote data on them might still be recoverable. Should those votes count in the election result? There is no really good answer - either way, public confidence in the election results is compromised. That can't be prevented 100% by any technology, but here is a novel idea: let's design voting technology so that we purposely avoid having it be the Achilles Heel of public confidence. OK, maybe it's not so novel, but it is what we're doing.

-- EJS

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Transparency: Government Offers Data to Mine

In the next step on the topic of voting machines and transparency, let me explain what I meant in a previous posting about a "side effect" of adoption of TTV technology for machine counts of optically scanned ballots. The ballot counting software, like pretty much all we make, logs the heck out of everything, and leaves no useful data behind. The side effect I mentioned would be in the context of local election officials using the TTV ballot counting technology in their locality -- presumably for a variety of reasons notably including that it does what they told us they wanted to do, reliably! But as a result, these hypothetical election officials would be sitting on trove for data-miners who want transparency of election operations, and the ability to drill down on details as much as possible. So the side effect is that the election officials could decide to use features to publish this trove. That's the enhanced transparency-enabler that I've mentioned. (Sorry if that's not a "ta-da" moment for you. ;-) )

But to make this a bit more concrete, here is an example of the type of data I am talking about: check out recent results from the Humboldt County Transparency Project, which shows how to publish the image of a scanned ballot, and the data behind the machine interpretation of a" vote." That's a concrete example of informaiton like the "voted ballot record" that various election tech people talk about. (We'll shortly be publishing a report on how this capture is done in part of the TTV Suite under development.)

And for a concrete example of the practice of publishing, try nytimes.com reporting on Local Governments Offer Data to Software Tinkerers. Now just imagine your local election officials joining the party with as much info (about ballots, voting, counting, aggregating, reporting, election results, ...) as they can legally release. Now you've got the idea -- a geeky sort of transparency and public benefit, perhaps, but potentially very powerful.

-- EJS

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Transparency, Voting Machines, Choices

Today I provide the next step in clarifying TTV goals in relation to discussions with election transparency advocates. Regarding the previous posting, I want to emphasize that voting  machines -- in this case we focus on paper ballot scanning machines -- are a transparency problem, if there is no human involvement in counting paper ballots, and the public has no access to audit records of the counting process. Even with current systems, election officials can choose to mitigate these difficulties; and as I said before, we will deliver to them some technology that can make that a lot easier to do. Today, I wanted to talk about choices. In discussion about voting machines as part of the problem, it seemed like TTV might also be part of the problem too, because we are failing to advocate for either or both of the use of hand counting of paper ballots, or abandoning the use of paper ballot scanning devices. So let me be clear about that: it is true that we are not advocating for those positions, not influencing legislators to make such changes in election law, and not advocating that election officials should make those particular changes in their election methods. Such advocacy work may be to the public benefit, and is rightly performed by activists and advocates.

The choice is with election officials, on how to use available technology. In making available some new paper-ballot-counting technology, we are not advocating that a particular voting method be used. I've listed several voting methods below, as illustration of many choices that election officials could make, all of them choices in which new voting technology could be used, and could help with transparency. With the exception of advocates of completely zero machine count usage (and that is a worthy topic for another day), we hope that advocates of many positions might extend the benefit of the doubt that our efforts can help, at a minimum with some interesting "side effects" that I'll discuss next time.

-- EJS

PS: Here is that list of several kinds of voting methods:

  • Polling-place machine-counted paper ballots, centrally machine-counted other ballots, and minimum 2% partial hand-counting in a risk-limiting audit methodology;
  • Similar, but 100% hand-counting, for full benefit of each co-eval counting method checking the other (consilience), and a standard methodology for auditing and resolving differences;
  • Hand-counting, with machine-counting for consilience benefits in recounts, and in automaticly triggered audits of contests above a specified "close result" level;
  • Polling place electronic voting (no paper ballots), centrally machine-counted vote by mail ballots;

As you can see, that's a broad range, and with variants of each, there are dozens of choices. Paper ballot scanning/counting devices have a role in each, and do not preclude any of these choices. Again: 100% hand count, 0% machine count is a separate topic I promise to get to.

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Transparency: Machines as Part of the Problem?

I need to correct two mis-impressions about the TrustTheVote Project that were presented to me by couple of election reform advocates.

  1. One advocate is in favor of an election method using paper ballots that are all counted by hand, and all counted by machine -- the combination being one where each of the two counts is a check on errors or fraud in the other count; and
  2. The other advocate is essentially against the use of technology to count ballots, because the practice is inherently opaque -- that is, it is argued that for non-technical people, open source systems are no more comprehensible or observable than proprietary black box systems.

So, how is it that the TrustTheVote Project is not part of the problem (as they stated it) of counting votes with computers?

There are actually several parts of the answer, so I'll be spacing them out over a few posts. But for starters, I was struck by the claim that current voting systems are pernicious because they prevent "the public right to know and authenticate results" of elections.

I agree that any purely digital vote-counting method is opaque. But I don't agree that a voting-counting method is necessarily opaque because it includes digital methods. The choice and methods, of various techniques and technologies, is the choice of local election officials, and each local choice will have varying degrees of transparency -- no matter what the TrustTheVote Project produces.

So, where we (the TrustTheVote Project) differ with these advocates is that they, almost by definition on this issue, are seeking to sway the future choices of election officials on how to count votes.   But we on the other hand, are working to give election officials some technology ingredients for their own local recipes -- ingredients that enable transparency and the public's ability to know how an election was conducted.

-- EJS

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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

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Another vote for paper

Check out No Voting Machine Virus in NY-23 Election(from Bo Lipari - Essays and Images:

"Finally, the good news – because New York votes on paper, everybody’s vote was counted. When the scanner stopped working, the ballots were removed and counted, so no votes were lost. Paper ballots, a software independent record of the vote, proved their great value in their very first outing in the Empire State. " (from: No Voting Machine Virus in NY-23 Election)

Its an interesting article explaining what actually seemed to have happened in NY-23. I say "seemed" because I am sure there must be other interpreations and explanations, but the one I am citing here rings pretty realistic to me.

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Votes Lost & Found in Myrtle Beach

Election officials in Myrtle Beach, SC, noted the absence of about 260 votes in the recent election there. Fortunately, the votes were found, and the reason for the error discovered -- and both before the election was certified. It's a good thing that Myrtle Beach election officials were making their lists and checking them twice, because it's quite possible for the omission to have been overlooked until after the election was final. However, the story is a good illustration of how some technology design decisions create the scope for operator error. The basic story is that in one polling place, a poll worker made a mistake in the process of extracting electronic vote totals from a voting machine, using a removable data storage cartridge in a way that's similar to how you might use a USB flash drive to copy some files off of your PC. The problem, however, it that these particular voting machines are designed to be picky -- if you don't use the right cartridge the right way, the data is not copied, and is omitted from the supposedly complete vote totals compiled later (Also, it is not obvious to exhausted poll volunteers when this mistake occurs.)

You might ask, why so picky? Wouldn't it be better to record vote totals in a way that didn't depend on a poll worker not making mistakes at the end of an 18+ hour day? Well of course, put that way, yes. But when you look at the actual details of the way the iVotronic voting machines work, you can see that from a techie perspective, the design is not crazy -- right up to the V-8 moment of realizing that a consequence is that operator error results in lost votes. Those details are not technical, quite instructive, and well explained by voting technology expert Doug Jones:

The electronic cartridge (PEB) is used to initialize the machine in the morning, enable the machine for voting before each voter, and close down the machine in the evening.

In some jurisdictions, a polling place has multiple PEBs: a master PEB for opening and closing the polls, and another used for routine voting. When you do this, only the master PEB has the zero report and the vote totals on it. If you've got several iVotronics at the polling place, and you use a different PEB to close the polls on some of them, the master PEB won't have all the totals; then, when you upload it, you'll be missing votes from some machines.

This is an excellent example of a procedural error of the type that the voting systems could help defend against, but don't. It would be possible to write specs that lead to automatic detection of machines believed to have been deployed for which no totals have been reported. Sadly, we haven't got such behavior in our system specs, and as a result, we chalk such problems up to human error and let the voting system off the hook.

As you can see, once again the devil is in the details -- and thanks to Doug for the infernal info.

-- EJS

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Levers, HAVA, and "Compliance"

Kudos to Brad Friedman for making a good call on a subtle point in his comment on my posting about Bo Lipari's coverage of the NY State testing of voting systems. Brad objects to my statement that lever machines are not compliant with the Help Amercia Vote Act (HAVA). And rightly so! The bad news about the adjective "HAVA compliant" is that people can and do disagree about the interpretation of that Act of Congress. The good news is that the noun "HAVA compliance" is well defined by facts on the ground, if not in the Act itself.

Those facts on the ground are composed of each state's implementation of its HAVA compliance plan, under the oversight of the U.S. Department of Justice. The DoJ has for years been working with states, including the lever-machine states of NY and CT, on each state's HAVA compliance plan. Those plans in NY include the use of machine-counted paper ballots, some hand-marked, and some from ballot marking devices that provide enhanced access for voters who are unable or unwilling to mark paper ballots by hand. Those plans do not include the continued of lever machines.

So we can say that lever machines are not part of HAVA-compliance (noun) in NY or CT.

Further, I got the impression, from talking to folks involved in HAVA compliance program implementations, that there was no chance of a compliance program being approved if it was based on the continued use of lever machines. If true, that might well based on what Brad would consider a misinterpretation of HAVA.

Would it be possible for a state to have an acceptable HAVA compliance plan that included lever machines? Perhaps a plan that included electronic DREs for enhanced access, lever machines (which are mechanical direct-record election devices), and tools for combining the results from both into an auditable election result? Possibly, but likely we'll never know, as the last few HAVA-compliance program engines pull into the station at the end of ride.

-- EJS

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