Can you count on voting machines?

The New York Times logoThe New York Times Magazine asked the question, and it’s worth your time – if you have a little bit to spare  – to read their quest for the answer.

Reporter Clive Thompson largely uses Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida’s experiences with electronic voting machines – and touch-screen machines in particular  – as case studies for the article. San Mateo County’s electronic voting machines, called eSlates, are not touch screens. But their manufacturer, Hart InterCivic, is mentioned as one of the the nation’s key players in the business. There is much examination of the potential problems when machines don’t have an accompanying paper trail of votes cast on them – and even when they do. (eSlates have a paper trail which allows voters to verify that their votes were recorded correctly before their ballot is cast.)

Thompson gives a solid retrospective of how we got to where we are, poses some tough questions about electronic voting machines’ potential shortcomings, lays out varying perspectives in the debate and maybe even reaches a few big-picture conclusions.

Take this excerpt: 

Part of the problem stems from the fact that voting requires a level of precision we demand from virtually no other technology. We demand that the systems behind A.T.M.’s and credit cards be accurate, of course. But if they’re not, we can quickly detect something is wrong: we notice that our balance is off and call the bank, or the bank notices someone in China bought $10,000 worth of clothes and calls us to make sure it’s legitimate. But in an election, the voter must remain anonymous to the government. If a machine crashes and the county worries it has lost some ballots, it cannot go back and ask voters how they voted — because it doesn’t know who they are. It is the need for anonymity that fuels the quest for perfection in voting machines.

Perfection isn’t possible, of course; every voting system has flaws. So historically, the public — and candidates for public office — have grudgingly accepted that their voting systems will produce some errors here and there. The deep, ongoing consternation over touch-screen machines stems from something new: the unpredictability of computers. Computers do not merely produce errors; they produce errors of unforeseeable magnitude. Will people trust a system when they never know how big or small its next failure will be?

It’s no accident that Thompson took his in-depth examination of electronic voting machines into swing states that will undoubtedly play a critical role in determining the outcome of November’s presidential election. While a big-picture discussion at the national level is very important, the question of whether you can rely on voting machines to accurately reflect voters’ choices is especially poignant in states where an important race will likely be close.

To that end, some states are now doing like California and ensuring that all voters have the option to vote a paper ballot at the polls. Earlier this month, Ohio’s Secretary of State ordered that paper ballots be available for their March presidential primary at polling places that use touch-screen machines. She is even looking to scrap electronic machines entirely come November, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“That, in a nutshell, is what people crave in the highly partisan arena of modern American politics: an election that can be extremely close and yet regarded by all as fair,” Thompson writes. “Not only must the losing candidate believe in the loss; the public has to believe in it, too.”


5 responses to “Can you count on voting machines?

  1. Sadly, the NYT article did not understand the issue, or purposely mislead the readers. The issue is whether we, as Americans, want our elections to engage a secret vote count.

    In Australia, when they did their research, they concluded that the only way to preserve their voters’ right to vote, would be to require that the technology be subject to public scrutiny. America has always practiced “subject to public scrutiny” as one of the cornerstones to our democratic form of government. That can’t happen when proprietary electronic voting systems are used. Australia has their elections software freely available on the Internet. Anyone, anywhere, can download the software, modify it, and use it for their own elections. It can save a country literally billions of dollars and guarantee the voters’ right to vote remains secure. In America, with the same facts in front of us, we chose to use proprietary electronic voting systems, and eliminate our right to vote. Wonder why? Why would we spend so much money for an elections system that guarantees our right to vote is changed instantly to a secret vote count?

  2. I think you should be making the argument for why our machines are reliable to use because if you don’t there will be many who won’t even give the machines a chance. However I do believe that the machines used in San Mateo County are reliable and work very well. They offer a paper trail which to me ensures that the vote is recorded accuratley which is a major plus. If our machines ever fail I am sure that an accurate tally will occur and therefore when someone loses I am sure they truly loss.

  3. If eSlates “are reliable and work very well”, why don’t they count 100% of the paper trail, instead of 10% (or in some stubborn counties, I think only 1%)? If the government really believed the technology worked, the “paper trail” would be the official vote, and the eSlate would serve only as an input device.

    In terms of security, it is a mistake to compare systems as an “either/or” proposition, because we end up using many systems, and we are subject to the *sum* of their security risks–not the risk of the best (or even worst) system in use. San Mateo County’s combination of mail-in ballots, electronic precinct ballots, paper precinct ballots, and early voting ballots (not to mention provisionals) is unavoidably far weaker than any of the individual systems examined in isolation. Eliminating any of the subsystems–even the best–would improve security.

    The worst, IMO, is the mail-in ballot:

    It effectively nullifies the secret ballot, and reverses one of the key achievements of the women’s suffrage movement–the ability of women to cast their ballots free from the influence of overbearing men.

    It effectively gives two votes to householders with apolitical mates, and gives more voting power to the most authoritarian personality in each household.

    It allows well-heeled campaigns the ability to send workers door-to-door, sussing out each voter’s intent, and urging only the friendly voters to mail in their ballots right away. –And they get to do that for weeks on end.

    If you doubt the vulnerability of mail-in ballots to the 3 phenomena above, just look at the recent election results in San Bruno: The bullies promoting a higher sales tax were able to affect the mail-vote to the extent that they would have won, if not for the election day voters, who–acting in the privacy of the public polling place, free from the influence of intimidating spouses or campaign workers–voted against the tax in sufficient numbers to defeat the measure in the end, by a tiny margin.

    The vulnerability of mail-in ballots is roughly equivalent to allowing family members and campaign workers to badger meek voters at their polling stations, without the inconvenience of getting the meek voters to go there. If San Mateo County were more consistent about the Pandora’s box it has opened, it would ask its legislators to sponsor repeal of anti-electioneering polling place laws, to bring them in line with the reality of the reduced privacy standards of the mail-in ballots our ROV is promoting like a new religion.

    Would anyone believe the results of a mail-in election in Belarus? Why should we allow our ballots to be any more vulnerable to manipulation here?

    (I love you guys at the ROV, and trust in your personal integrity, but these problems need more recognition and respect.)

  4. Furthering the discussion, we add an article that appeared in the Rocky Mountain News (Denver, Colo.) on Jan. 12 which explored the question of whether paper ballots are more effectively counted by hand or optical scanners.

    “Activists pushing for more integrity in Colorado’s voting system want an election where paper ballots are counted by hand. But hand counts have nearly twice the error rate of tallying paper ballots by machine, experts say, and there’s good reason why the old-fashioned system was largely abandoned years ago,” the article states. “Machines aren’t fail-safe either. Optical scan devices that tally paper ballots have lower error rates than hand counting, but they still can misread irregular marks or folded ballots. The bottom line, experts say, is that no voting method is perfect.”

    Read it here.

    Colorado is struggling to determine what voting method they’ll employ for the presidential election after their Secretary of State decertified most of the electronic voting machines used there in December. The latest development is that Secretary of State Mike Coffman appears to be siding with county clerks to implement an all-mail general election in November.

  5. I think the article underplayed the point that hand counting is relatively expensive and time-consuming, while optical counting, as well as being more accurate, is *much* cheaper and quicker.

    Moreover, you can trivially do it 2 or 3 times, using different machines or techniques for independent validation. Didn’t the Eagle scanners let you feed ballots backward?

    I believe the original space shuttle had 3 flight control computers, running different–but functionally equivalent–programs, so that pilots could use them to validate one another. I bet running optical ballots through 3 scanners would be faster, cheaper, and much more accurate than 1 hand-count.

    Ideally, I’d like to see all ballots scanned by 2 machines from different manufacturers, with hand examination of any ballots that scanned differently. One hopes that number would be very small!

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