More on Electronic Voting Machines
This year I wrote an essay for Forbes.com. It’s really nothing that I, and others, haven’t already said previously.
Florida 13 is turning out to be a bigger problem than I described:
The Democrat, Christine Jennings, lost to her Republican opponent, Vern Buchanan, by just 373 votes out of a total 237,861 cast - one of the closest House races in the nation. More than 18,000 voters in Sarasota County, or 13 percent of those who went to the polls Tuesday, did not seem to vote in the Congressional race when they cast ballots, a discrepancy that Kathy Dent, the county elections supervisor, said she could not explain.
In comparison, only 2 percent of voters in one neighboring county within the same House district and 5 percent in another skipped the Congressional race, according to The Herald-Tribune of Sarasota. And many of those who did not seem to cast a vote in the House race did vote in more obscure races, like for the hospital board.
There’ll be a recount, and with that close a margin it’s pretty random who will eventually win. But because so many votes were not recorded—and I don’t see how anyone who has any understanding of statistics can look at this data and not conclude that votes were not recorded—we’ll never know who should really win this district.
In Pennsylvania, the Republican State Committee is asking the Secretary of State to impound voting machines because of potential voting errors:
Pennsylvania GOP officials claimed there were reports that some machines were changing Republican votes to Democratic votes. They asked the state to investigate and said they were not ruling out a legal challenge.
According to Santorum’s camp, people are voting for Santorum, but the vote either registered as invalid or a vote for Casey.
RedState.com describes some of the problems:
RedState is getting widespread reports of an electoral nightmare shaping up in Pennsylvania with certain types of electronic voting machines.
In some counties, machines are crashing. In other counties, we have enough reports to treat as credible that fact that some Rendell votes are being tabulated by the machines for Swann and vice versa. The same is happening with Santorum and Casey. Reports have been filed with the Pennsylvania Secretary of State, but nothing has happened.
I’m happy to see a Republican at the receiving end of the problems.
Actually, that’s not true. I’m not happy to see anyone at the receiving end of voting problems. But I am sick and tired of this being perceived as a partisan issue, and I hope some high-profile Republican losses that might be attributed to electronic voting-machine malfunctions (or even fraud) will change that perception. This is a serious problem that affects everyone, and it is in everyone’s interest to fix it.
FL-13 was the big voting-machine disaster, but there were other electronic voting-machine problems reported:
The types of machine problems reported to EFF volunteers were wide-ranging in both size and scope. Polls opened late for machine-related reasons in polling places throughout the country, including Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Virginia, Utah, Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, and California. In Broward County, Florida, voting machines failed to start up at one polling place, leaving some citizens unable to cast votes for hours. EFF and the Election Protection Coalition sought to keep the polling place open late to accommodate voters frustrated by the delays, but the officials refused. In Utah County, Utah, more than 100 precincts opened one to two hours late on Tuesday due to problems with machines. Both county and state election officials refused to keep polling stations open longer to make up for the lost time, and a judge also turned down a voter’s plea for extended hours brought by EFF.
And there’s this election for mayor, where one of the candidates received zero votes—even though that candidate is sure he voted for himself.
ComputerWorld is also reporting problems across the country, as is The New York Times. Avi Rubin, whose writings on electronic voting security are always worth reading, writes about a problem he witnessed in Maryland:
The voter had made his selections and pressed the “cast ballot” button on the machine. The machine spit out his smartcard, as it is supposed to do, but his summary screen remained, and it did not appear that his vote had been cast. So, he pushed the smartcard back in, and it came out saying that he had already voted. But, he was still in the screen that showed he was in the process of voting. The voter then pressed the “cast ballot” again, and an error message appeared on the screen that said that he needs to call a judge for assistance. The voter was very patient, but was clearly taking this very seriously, as one would expect. After discussing the details about what happened with him very carefully, I believed that there was a glitch with his machine, and that it was in an unexpected state after it spit out the smartcard. The question we had to figure out was whether or not his vote had been recorded. The machine said that there had been 145 votes cast. So, I suggested that we count the voter authority cards in the envelope attached to the machine. Since we were grouping them into bundles of 25 throughout the day, that was pretty easy, and we found that there were 146 authority cards. So, this meant that either his vote had not been counted, or that the count was off for some other reason. Considering that the count on that machine had been perfect all day, I thought that the most likely thing is that this glitch had caused his vote not to count. Unfortunately, because while this was going on, all the other voters had left, other election judges had taken down and put away the e-poll books, and we had no way to encode a smartcard for him. We were left with the possibility of having the voter vote on a provisional ballot, which is what he did. He was gracious, and understood our predicament.
The thing is, that I don’t know for sure now if this voter’s vote will be counted once or twice (or not at all if the board of election rejects his provisional ballot). In fact, the purpose of counting the voter authority cards is to check the counts on the machines hourly. What we had done was to use the number of cards to conclude something about whether a particular voter had voted, and that is not information that these cards can provide. Unfortunately, I believe there are an unimaginable number of problems that could crop up with these machines where we would not know for sure if a voter’s vote had been recorded, and the machines provide no way to check on such questions. If we had paper ballots that were counted by optical scanners, this kind of situation could never occur.
How many hundreds of these stories do we need before we conclude that electronic voting machines aren’t accurate enough for elections?
On the plus side, the FL-13 problems have convinced some previous naysayers in that district:
Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent now says she will comply with voters who want a new voting system—one that produces a paper trail…. Her announcement Friday marks a reversal for the elections supervisor, who had promoted and adamantly defended the touch-screen system the county purchased for $4.5 million in 2001.
One of the dumber comments I hear about electronic voting goes something like this: “If we can secure multi-million-dollar financial transactions, we should be able to secure voting.” Most financial security comes through audit: names are attached to every transaction, and transactions can be unwound if there are problems. Voting requires an anonymous ballot, which means that most of our anti-fraud systems from the financial world don’t apply to voting. (I first explained this back in 2001.)
In Minnesota, we use paper ballots counted by optical scanners, and we have some of the most well-run elections in the country. To anyone reading this who needs to buy new election equipment, this is what to buy.
On the other hand, I am increasingly of the opinion that an all mail-in election—like Oregon has—is the right answer. Yes, there are authentication issues with mail-in ballots, but these are issues we have to solve anyway, as long as we allow absentee ballots. And yes, there are vote-buying issues, but almost everyone considers them to be secondary. The combined benefits of 1) a paper ballot, 2) no worries about long lines due to malfunctioning or insufficient machines, 3) increased voter turnout, and 4) a dampening of the last-minute campaign frenzy make Oregon’s election process very appealing.