In the world of voting, automatic recount laws are not uncommon. Virginia, where George Allen lost to James Webb in the Senate race by 7,800 out of over 2.3 million votes, or 0.33 percent percent, is an example. If the margin of victory is 1 percent or less, the loser is allowed to ask for a recount. If the margin is 0.5 percent or less, the government pays for it. If the margin is between 0.5 percent and 1 percent, the loser pays for it.

We have recounts because vote counting is—to put it mildly—sloppy. Americans like their election results fast, before they go to bed at night. So we’re willing to put up with inaccuracies in our tallying procedures, and ignore the fact that the numbers we see on television correlate only roughly with reality.

Traditionally, it didn’t matter very much, because most voting errors were “random errors.”

There are two basic types of voting errors: random errors and systemic errors. Random errors are just that, random—equally likely to happen to anyone. In a close race, random errors won’t change the result because votes intended for candidate A that mistakenly go to candidate B happen at the same rate as votes intended for B that mistakenly go to A. (Mathematically, as candidate A’s margin of victory increases, random errors slightly decrease it.)

This is why, historically, recounts in close elections rarely change the result. The recount will find the few percent of the errors in each direction, and they’ll cancel each other out. In an extremely close election, a careful recount will yield a different result—but that’s a rarity.

The other kind of voting error is a systemic error. These are errors in the voting process—the voting machines, the procedures—that cause votes intended for A to go to B at a different rate than the reverse.

An example would be a voting machine that mysteriously recorded more votes for A than there were voters. (Sadly, this kind of thing is not uncommon with electronic voting machines.) Another example would be a random error that only occurs in voting equipment used in areas with strong A support. Systemic errors can make a dramatic difference in an election, because they can easily shift thousands of votes from A to B without any counterbalancing shift from B to A.

Even worse, systemic errors can introduce errors out of proportion to any actual randomness in the vote-counting process. That is, the closeness of an election is not any indication of the presence or absence of systemic errors.

When a candidate has evidence of systemic errors, a recount can fix a wrong result—but only if the recount can catch the error. With electronic voting machines, all too often there simply isn’t the data: there are no votes to recount.

This year’s election in Florida’s 13th Congressional District is such an example. The winner won by a margin of 373 out of 237,861 total votes, but as many as 18,000 votes were not recorded by the electronic voting machines. These votes came from areas where the loser was favored over the winner, and would have likely changed the result.

Or imagine this—as far as we know—hypothetical situation: After the election, someone discovers rogue software in the voting machines that flipped some votes from A to B. Or someone gets caught vote tampering—changing the data on electronic memory cards. The problem is that the original data is lost forever; all we have is the hacked vote.

Faced with problems like this, we can do one of two things. We can certify the result anyway, regretful that people were disenfranchised but knowing that we can’t undo that wrong. Or, we can tell everyone to come back and vote again.

To be sure, the very idea of revoting is rife with problems. Elections are a snapshot in time—election day—and a revote will not reflect that. If Virginia revoted for the Senate this year, the election would not just be for the junior senator from Virginia, but for control of the entire Senate. Similarly, in the 2000 presidential election in Florida, or the 2004 presidential election in Ohio, single-state revotes would have decided the presidency.

And who should be allowed to revote? Should only people in those precincts where there were problems revote, or should the entire election be rerun? In either case, it is certain that more voters will find their way to the polls, possibly changing the demographic and swaying the result in a direction different than that of the initial set of voters. Is that a bad thing, or a good thing?

Should only people who actually voted—records are kept—or who could demonstrate that they were erroneously turned away from the polls be allowed to revote? In this case, the revote will almost certainly have fewer voters, as some of the original voters will be unable to vote a second time. That’s probably a bad thing—but maybe it’s not.

The only analogy we have for this are run-off elections, which are required in some jurisdictions if the winning candidate didn’t get 50 percent of the vote. But it’s easy to know when you need to have a run-off. Who decides, and based on what evidence, that you need to have a revote?

I admit that I don’t have the answers here. They require some serious thinking about elections, and what we’re trying to achieve. But smart election security not only tries to prevent vote hacking—or even systemic electronic voting-machine errors—it prepares for recovery after an election has been hacked. We have to start discussing these issues now, when they’re non-partisan, instead of waiting for the inevitable situation, and the pre-drawn battle lines those results dictate.

This essay originally appeared on

Posted on November 16, 2006 at 6:07 AM48 Comments


alabamatoy November 16, 2006 7:02 AM

I guess for once, I am profoundly proud of my beloved state, which usually occupies the last or second-to-last position in most lists. Alabama utilizes scanned paper ballots, which means recounts are relatively simple matters, and as BS has stated, far less subject to tampering etc.

Clive Robinson November 16, 2006 7:04 AM


Arguing about re-voting is a bit like arguing if sea water is better at putting out a fire than river water, whilst your house is burning down.

What we should be looking to do is find a solution where the whole political process starts to aproach a true democratic process, not the current joke it is.

MathFox November 16, 2006 7:39 AM

Any vote has its random and systematic errors in capturing the intent of the voters. The reason to perform re-votes is to capture the intent of the voters better than in the “failed” vote, when it could materially impact the results of the election.

Re-voting only makes sense when
– There are obvious problems with the original vote
– The re-vote might change the final outcome of the election
For efficiency, it doesn’t make sense to involve more voters than is needed to make up for the original screw-up: decisions can be made on a per “polling place” basis.

It would certainly help if the people (and companies) involved were held liable for the problems they create, irrespectively of the nescessity of re-votes.

MathFox November 16, 2006 7:58 AM

Continuing my previous post:
I think a re-vote should be automatic when the two conditions are statisfied and that polling officials should have the obligation to report any irregulatities.

Mike Reed November 16, 2006 8:31 AM


What is so difficult about having the rules for recounts stated clearly in a state Constitution (or civil code, or some other governing document)? It seems to me that one of the duties of government should be to provide mechanisms for the peaceful transition to subsequent representatives, and provide a fair treatment of any contingencies that may occur. Most of the common cases of malfunctions–be they electronic, mechanical, or paper-ballot–are known, so having statuary remedies in place seems an obvious solution.


Roy November 16, 2006 8:43 AM

The voting process is not even a system, as it has yet to be actually defined. Each jurisdiction may have a theory of operation, but theory and practice are worlds apart. We are so used to failure that failure is accepted as inevitable and unavoidable.

The only process in the US worse than this is the judicial process.

swiss connection November 16, 2006 8:48 AM

Great idea, If I see that the election is not going my way, just hire some gangs to destroy a couple of dozen voting machines to force a revote.

Ted November 16, 2006 9:01 AM

@swiss connection

Just one of the dozens of problems with revoting, many of which Bruce points out.

The special interests that would be brought to bear on a revote would make it very hard to trust that the will of the people was being accurately represented.

And what do you do when the revote has just as many errors as the original?

I just don’t see any way revoting can be made to work. The only viable solution is to get it right the first time.

Bob November 16, 2006 9:10 AM

@Clive Robinson,

You’ll have to be more specific. But when people talk about fixing a broken democratic system, they’re often thinking of things such as: getting rid of the electoral college, reducing the impact of gerrymandering, reducing the influence of money in elections, changing the system so smaller parties are relevant, etc.

While some or all of those might be good ideas, each is likely difficult. To then say we cannot address other problems, that may in fact be easier to address, until all or most of the big ones are fixed strikes me as rather naive.

Incremental improvements are still improvements. Look at what biological evolution was able to do with incremental improvements.

Bob November 16, 2006 9:15 AM

@swiss connection,

But that problem already exists even outside the issue of a re-vote. In a close election one can hire the thugs to destroy the votes in a precinct that will likely favor the opponent by a wide margin.

What prevents that from happening? I think we have to work to make the perpetrators (from the thugs to the candidate) likely to be caught and make the punishment sufficiently severe.

Hullu November 16, 2006 9:59 AM

Bob: “Incremental improvements are still improvements. Look at what biological evolution was able to do with incremental improvements.”

Me: Yes, it’s destroying the world at a very nice pace!:)

Clive Robinson November 16, 2006 10:04 AM


“getting rid of the electoral college”

Would be a very definate start in the right direction in the U.S. Most countries do not have that particular oddity in their systems and trying to explain it to people from Europe is an entertaining process.

My gripe is mainly to do with the fact that you get one chance in four years or so (depending on your country) to have a say in how you are governed. It’s a legacy from several centuries ago, and realy we ought to be thinking on ways of changing it.

Most democracies are realy only that in name Winston Churchill made disparaging remarks about them getting on for a century ago.

Although incrimental changes are sometimes benificial, you occasionaly have to go gardening with the flame thrower and JCB. Likewise before you start a journy you should have some idea not only of where to go but how to get there.

If people actually devote some time to actually deciding where they want to go as a governed nation then they can at least make sure the incremental changes are going in the right direction.

The first real problem with that is that the Polititians decide for the populace, so they get a system that suits them not the voters, so a change there would be a very good start.

Saxon November 16, 2006 11:20 AM


“getting rid of the electoral college”

Would be a very definate start in the right direction in the U.S.

Actually, removing it would disenfranchise a large portion of the U.S., since it is intended to balance the massive populations of the cities against the needs of rural areas. Without it, we would have “pure” democracy, also known as mob rule, and politicians would only have to win over 3 or four of the major metropolitan areas to win any election. This would radically destabilize the economy and cause an incredible social division between the cities and the rural areas that make those cities possible (where else does all that food come from?).

Dumping the electoral college is the dream of the big-government socialists and other nanny-staters, because the majority of their constituency lives in those cities (thus guaranteeing they’d be in power for a long time), but once the city-dwellers vote to avail themselves of the largesse of the government pocketbook, the country would have started down the road to forcibly compelling the rural areas to support the cities, whether they wanted to or not (or could afford to, more likely).

I can see the promises now: “Elect me, and I’ll make sure those farmers don’t gouge you at the market anymore. And by the way, many of them have millions of dollars in assets (never mind that that includes land and farming equipment), so we’ll raise their taxes to make sure they pay their fair share.”

Alan November 16, 2006 12:04 PM

The other kind of voting error is a systemic error…that cause votes intended for A to go to B at a different rate than the reverse.

Or cause A’s votes to be lost at a greater rate than B’s votes.

This year’s election in Florida’s 13th Congressional District is such an example…as many as 18,000 votes were not recorded by the electronic voting machines.

This is not clear. Its possible that the voters did not enter votes for this race because the ballot was poorly designed — it appears this race was at the top of the second page, and just below it was a promient header. The eye natuarally tends to track what’s BELOW the header, not what’s above, is this race is easy to overlook.

AFIAK, the law, as it currently stands, only supports revotes when vote fraud can be proven. Equipment failure, ballot errors, voter errors, etc., do not appear to be grounds for revotes under currently law. This needs to be changed, but the implications also need to be carefully studied.

IMHO, when a revote does occur, it should only happen in the precincts where there was a problem, and only voters who voted the first time should be eligible. This will fairly correct the problem while keeping the time and expense to a minium. November 16, 2006 12:38 PM

@Bruce: I found the notion that the loser should be paying for recounts rather strange and thoroughly undemocratic. Having the complaining side pay irrespective of outcome is only less undemocratic. I think that in no case should a rightful election winner be allowed to lose the election for lack of funds.

Bill November 16, 2006 1:19 PM

At the voting location both parties are represented and watch over everything. If we were to split the electronic equipment into two parts with a defined interface between them, it would be possible to use different vendors for the 2 (or more) parts of the process. This would help reduce the incidence of vote rigging.

With both parts of the system recording each voter’s decisions on some sort of write once device (such as a DVD) , a voter could check their results on the dvd after they have finished voting. This would allow an auditing process to validate the recorded votes as they are being made.

Not all electronic systems seem to be buggy. In Texas we have been using an electronic system for at least 2 years without any problems.

nedu November 16, 2006 1:39 PM


According to Melissa Mixon’s Wednesday, November 15, 2006 story in the Austin American Statesman, “Voting problems in Williamson County”:

“Williamson County spokeswoman Connie Watson said that computer software counted each electronic vote three times, making the initial reported vote total about 6,500 more than the actual total. Most of the votes in the county were cast on paper ballots.”

Is this the same system used elsewhere in Texas?

Hmmmmm November 16, 2006 2:08 PM

In this year’s election, in Riverside county California our electronic voting machines used paper as a master record. Hence all the decisions were made on the touch screen, but before your finally submit the ballot the left side of the machine would show your choices. If you agreed with the choices then you could submit the ballot. Now this seems like a good start, because the paper trail is verified before submission. The only thing that I think would strengthen the process would be to also print a hash for the choices and a serial number for the transaction. Then print a copy for the voter. Then if a dispute arose the voter could take his/her printed copy and have it verified against the master record. Since the submitter already verified the master record before the submission of the ballot it “should” be listed. It would almost be like double entry accounting.

While there is a possibility of creating a false local copy and claiming your vote was erased from the master record, it would be difficult to accomplish since continious paper feed would normally show evidence of cut paper and the serial numbers would be out of order. Any fraud of that nature would be minimal. If the fraud was on the other side, then the original master would have to be thrown away and reproduced with a copy, but then it would be difficult to do so while keeping 99% of the votes in line with the local copies.

The verification process would loose ananomity, but I don’t see how to accurately challenge votes without loosing ananomity.

Please show me where this is a bad idea in countries where for the most part the police and the legal system protect the voters (i.e. the U.S. and much of Europe) I can see where this may not be so good for places where the police can not be trusted. Hence the need for ananomity in those countries.

dkimchi November 16, 2006 2:31 PM

In Washington state, I use a mail-in ballot that is read by optical scanner. Every ballot has a tear-off strip with a number printed thereon.
I would like this number repeated it on the ballot (it may be, I don’t remember) so that it may be part of the scanning process..
Then when my ballot was counted, I hope, I would be able to check whether my ballot had been processed or not.
I am not interested in seeing my choices (or anyone else’s), just whether my vote had been processed.
I would do this by going to the local library – so that I could be relatively anonymous in my net access – and accessing the relevant web site.

wkwillis November 16, 2006 2:33 PM

Nope, the Urban/Suburban people would never agree. The electoral college spent the last two hundred years giving the rural areas undue influence, and now that the shoe is on the other foot they aren’t going to agree on a change.
It has to do with the large states like Texas, Florida, and California. They have lots and lots of urban areas and are about to change sides into the Democratic column, and make the Presidency a permanent Democratic possession.

Saxon November 16, 2006 3:57 PM


Actually, abandoning the electoral college would benefit the Urban areas, as they are populous enough to present a simple majority of the national vote. Without the electoral college, the vote would consist only of the popular vote, which the cities hold. Politicians could campaign solely on urban/suburban issues and win. It’s the rural voters who would never agree to dropping the EC.

Also, while CA and FL and the Northeast urban areas are pretty solidly Democrat territory, Texas is only Dem in Austin and, to a lesser extent, Dallas. Also, in FL, only the peninsula is Dem, the panhandle is solidly Republican (hence the outrage when the state was called back in 2000 before the polls closed up in the panhandle).

Tarkeel November 17, 2006 1:27 AM

I guess what’s needed to change the electoral college, is for some of it’s members to not follow the suggestions (yes, suggestions) og the people who voted.

As far as I can see (IANAL), there is currently no obligation for members of the electoral college to cast their vote the way they are instructed to by the state and it’s voters.

Clive Robinson November 17, 2006 7:22 AM

@Saxon, wkwillis,

My problem with the electroral college is not so much what it is intended to do but that there is no accountability to those that vote for them (which @Tarkeel picked up on above).

This is one of my main gripes with our so called “Democratic Process” in nearly all Western nations. This is irrespective of if they are “first past the post”, “Proportionatly represented” or selected by another process that might obviate the “mob rule” / “vested interest” of the voters for National “Security / Unity” reasons.

If I as an individual sign a contract with you and then default on it you can take me to court and get restitution in one form or another. The court is very unlikley to accept, “oh things are not the same” or other vacuous political comment as an excuse for not performing.

Call me old fashioned (yup I’m old enough to take it on the chin 😉 but if I make a promise to do something I personaly try to get it done, and usually can show that I have done so or why and when I have failed and what I did about it (blaim my parents if you will for this obvious failing in my charecter they where born shortly after WW1 and the great flu epedemic).

Polititions on the other hand regard their pre-election promises (manifestoes) as nothing more than “Headline Grabing”, “Marketing” “Spin” or “Eye Candy” to raise their public profile and get your vote (much like some people regard their C.V.s these days).

Invariably the politician will not carry out these promises on election and know even before putting pen to paper that they have absolutly no intention of doing so. Infact often they first work how to weasel out of any “apparent promise” and word accordingly in the manifestoe (which is what makes it all the more obvious).

1) So a Sugestion, think of a way to put legal liability onto them so that you get value for your vote and taxes.

However polititions have clearly and very repetadly shown that although not accountable to the voter they are accountable to those who have financial / other benift control over them one way or another. The only difficulty they appear to have is how to hide both the money / benifit and the fact that they are doing it from you the voter.

So this is another of my gripes, a politition, will not do what they are told to do by their employers (the electorate, who pay them through taxes). They will however do what they are paid to do by those who are in competition with their employers (lobyists / fund raisers / etc).

If you as an employee did this in a company, you would very quickly and forcibly be seeking new employment. You might also find yourself doing a little court/jail time as well as losing your assets. Likewise if you are found to have “bent the truth” on your C.V. you can find yourself forcebly unemployed.

2) So a Sugestion, think about how to remove or mitigate this obvious unbalenced financial / benifit system, people should not be able to buy influence even in the holy mecca of the U.S. Dollar.

Also in order to make their life easier your elected representatives have continuosly modified the voting system to their benifit only (they have also modified the legislature as well for the same effect).

For instance you have a “Cult of Personality” system in place where you vote for the person to represent you not on issues or policy.

Therefore you have no say over what effects you, except at the occasional referendum, then the question is usually so biased that it is not a fair or open question.

Likewise you are only alowed to have your say when they want you to, not when you most need to, which generally is as infrequently as possible, and not for anything other than who’s snout gets to troff for the next four years or so.

The people offering benift however (lobyists / fund raisers / benifactors / media barons etc), get a say on policy and issues, when they want and usually without question. Does this seam a little odd to you?

Worse the benifit offeres actually get to set policy (think the DMCA and other wierdness from the “Disney land representative”). Are any of these vested interest policies of benifit to you ?

I very much doubt it, you might get told empty promises like it will “help protect jobs”, or you might be frightened into it such as “Reds under the bed” or “Terorrist threat” history almost invariably shows the oposit time upon time upon time….

3) So a Sugestion, think about how to design a system where you get your say on issues, as and when they come up.

I could write up lots more very obvious failings with the (non)democratic process we have in western countries, but they would be from my view point not yours.

Likewise my three sugestions of thinking / talking points, however unless we take an interest and are unafraid to talk about them and take action then we get the system that they want us to have (and arguably deserve), and it almost certainly is not going to benifit you except by accident.

Also one last thought point, although you will not come up with a good solution immediatly, open discussion will shape many peoples ideas and wishes into a good and workable set of ideals and systems. These can then use the technology we now have easily and redilly available to us to support them.

Afterall if your 300 year old wheel squeeks you can grease it, fix it or replace it. I would rather fix it or if required rpelace it and save getting my hands dirty time upon time for the next 300 years…

Likewise you would have to be a very brave person to start on a journey with no known destination, where you have to pay for it as it moves in a direction decided by a driver with only their own self interest as guidence, and not give yourself the oportunity to get off the bus as it where…

Therefor I also look forwad to the day where the last box on the ballot paper is marked “None of the above” and for it to have real (not token) meaning.

Jay Casler November 17, 2006 7:38 AM


Thank you for your thoughtful piece, you raise a number of crucial questions. One of the conclusions I draw is that electronic only voting should be, for now, removed. It should only be allowed once there is a provable, non-repudiatable means of preserving the vote data. This would be required for (eventual?) internet voting as well.

In NC we used a reliable hybrid – that is easily marked OCR ballots which are scanned on exit from the polling place. A touch screen marking machine is provided for those that need that kind of assistance. Its the best of both worlds. A permanent paper record AND immediate electronic feedback. Should a recount be needed the paper is there and the scanners can be used to assist. It works wonderfully and has made me wonder from the beginning why the post Florida disaster “reformers” have been so high on paperless Diebold(like) machinery.

The net for me is lets fall back to paper for all jurisdictions while pressing ahead on research of the technical problems we need to solve if we are ever going to get to electronic only voting.

Jay Casler

wm November 17, 2006 10:09 AM

@Jay Casler: “A permanent paper record AND immediate electronic feedback. Should a recount be needed the paper is there”

However, it doesn’t necessarily help to have the paper record if it’s used only for recounts of obviously-wrong electronic totals. The real worry with purely-electronic voting is that it can be subverted undetectably, in which case no-one will look at the paper records to notice that they say something completely different.

For the paper records to be truly useful, they must be counted whatever the outcome from the electronic system, to check the electronic results haven’t been altered.

It may be sufficient to compare the paper ballots against the electronic result in just a randomly-selected subset of precincts, but you’d be much better off just scrapping the electronics and counting the paper ballots manually for the final result. If you’re manually checking some of the results anyway, then it’s no slower just to count all of the results manually (because all precincts can count in parallel) — and speed is the only advantage of an electronic count. And if you only check a random sample of precincts, you have to worry about securing the process whereby those precincts are chosen, or the attackers can safely steal all the precincts that won’t be chosen.

C Gomez November 17, 2006 10:37 AM

“What is so difficult about having the rules for recounts stated clearly in a state Constitution (or civil code, or some other governing document)?”

Not as simple as it seems.

The problem with this is the actual use case won’t fall between any bright lines.

Let’s make up a hypothetical example (that is loosely based on the San Diego mayor’s race of a few years back)

What if a write-in candidate has a real shot at winning, but has a name that is easy to misspell: Dana Jone.

Some people go to the polls and vote for Dana Jones, Dayna Jone, Dana Chone, and D.J.

But the law says for a vote to count the write-in candidates name must be put on the ballot and then oval next to their name marked (as specified elsewhere).


Some people, who don’t vote for write-in candidates often, don’t mark the oval (they just don’t think of it). Some people, since they are now doing more writing with theit marking pen than normal, accidentally leave marks that might be misintepreted as a double vote (now invalid). What if one of the printed candidates names was “Doug Johnson” and someone writes “D.J.”?

To allow for this, most courts have said the “will of the voter should prevail.” In some cases, this is easy. In other cases, we’re basically asking for clairvoyance.

This was a straightforward example. What if the example involved perforated punch cards with chads that could conceiveable seem to be loose along one edge even though the voter deliberately chose no to vote? What happens then?

(Fortunately, the FEC warned against perforated chads, I believe in 1994. It was up to local jurisdictions to stop using them.)

When the real voting controversy happens, you don’t know what murky situation is going to happen.

So you can say: “If you don’t vote exactly right, tough!!” But what if it’s obvious that the public at large messed up (as it obviously did when Donna Frye very possibly got more people to try and vote for her as a write-in in San Diego, but whe you subtracted the MISTAKES, she got less technically valid votes.).

You can say: “Figure out the will of the voter!” and you have Florida’s 2000 election, decided by less than .001% A virtual tie.

And I personally think LA shouldn’t be allowed to have run-offs for their federal offices when the rest of the country doesn’t. It changes the outcome when people see how the new Congress’s makeup has been affected and drives new voters to the polls. I think that is unfair to the other states. Congress has the right to make the process uniform.

C Gomez November 17, 2006 10:44 AM

“It may be sufficient to compare the paper ballots against the electronic result in just a randomly-selected subset of precincts, but you’d be much better off just scrapping the electronics and counting the paper ballots manually for the final result.”

Why should elections be decided on election night? There’s nothing wrong with using speedy vote tallying methods to satisfy public curiosity about the result. However, most states have laws that elections are to be certified three weeks to a month (or more) after the event. Why not do a full manual count of the paper ballots and make sure the results are reasonably different?

Well, money… you have to pay people to do the recount. Seems like a far better expenditure than most of the social nonsense money is fraudulently wasted on, but that will take voters making “fair and accurate elections” a high priority.

In other words, when you see a news poll saying what the top issues are, they’d have to say: “Fair and accurate elections” before they say “education” “medical costs”

piglet November 17, 2006 11:05 AM

“Americans like their election results fast, before they go to bed at night.”

This was the first election I witnessed in the US and I was surprised how slow the results came in. Days after the election, there were still a considerable number of undecided races. Why? Also, to this day, I never saw any figures about the national vote share of each party. Is this because nobody cares, or does it really take so slow to add those numbers? Either way is a shame. Even though in the US system, the popular vote strictly doesn’t count the least bit, it is still an important result. Did the party that dominates the House actually get the majority of the votes (in the GOP domination years, this was not the case – the Dems actually got more votes but fewer seats)? Was the Dem win only the result of a modest swing in a few regions, or was it a national landslide? We can’t tell because the figures are nowhere (if anybody can point me to the figures, thanks!). In UK and Canada, which also have first-after-the-post systems, the figures were available immediately. Why not here???

piglet November 17, 2006 11:22 AM

“Similarly, in the 2000 presidential election in Florida, or the 2004 presidential election in Ohio, single-state revotes would have decided the presidency.”

This problem cannot be fixed within the current system. And the problem actually isn’t restricted to revotes. It was clear in the first place that the election was to be decided in a few states. The rest of the country, the vast majority of the votes, effectively never counted because the outcome was known before. The perverse effects of this system have been analyzed often enough. It is an insult to democracy because it forces the candidates to focus their campaign on a small subset of the voter base, and it is a security risk because manipulating the vote even in a few districts may be enough to screw an election (remember those Dem-leaning districts in Ohio 2004 that didn’t have enough voting machines, while GOP-leaning districts had plenty). The only solution is “one person – one vote”.

In every US election, there are plenty of reports about irregularities and manipulation. Normally we see reports like that from unstable developing countries. There are virtually no such reports from France, Canada, UK, Germany or Spain. Whether or not those irregularities cast doubt on the results, they should not be tolerated and not be shrugged off as a fact of nature. Americans shouldn’t be content with lower democratic standards than other nations.

piglet November 17, 2006 11:29 AM

“Without the electoral college, the vote would consist only of the popular vote, which the cities hold. Politicians could campaign solely on urban/suburban issues and win.”

Look at other countries. If every vote counts equal, then politicians cannot afford to ignore a large voter base. Liberals will try to reach rural voters, and conservatives will try to appeal to the urban population. Why is this bad?

Kuzorra November 17, 2006 12:56 PM

I really cannot see why such a complex discussion is necessary. That the electoral college system is ridiculously undemocratic is so obvious that it does not merit serious discussion. Democracy means that the person the most people want to have as president (representative, senator…) becomes president (…). Period. And as far as electronic voting is concerned I could never understand why on earth any people should be willing to accept a system so open to manipulation and technical errors. What’s wrong with ticking a box on a good old-fashioned sheet of paper and actually counting the votes?

Xellos November 17, 2006 1:01 PM


Nope, Williamson county is on an ES&S system. As I understand it, the main system in use in Texas is the HartIntercivic eSlate system. It’s a DRE system with no paper trail options, and has this rather odd scroll-wheel interface.
Willamson county still allows voters to request paper ballots. As far as I could tell, Travis county isn’t even making provisions for this any more. None of the polling places I looked at had an actual ballot box anywhere, just the eSlates.

I haven’t seen too many reports of problems with the systems, but I’m plenty suspicious of them. For starters, they’re made by an Austin company (I’m in Travis county, as is most, but not all, of Austin), one of those “we won’t let people look at our stuff” standard EVM companies. IIRC, they’re built on a version of Windows.
Plus, since they don’t even offer an option to have VVPT, there’s no way to tell whether or not there have been real problems. The Secretary of State (and on down) have been quite, quite reluctant to even talk about the deals made for these things, and there’s at least one lawsuit going on about this stuff.

Having looked over the poll results briefly, I have seen some rather odd trends. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much impossible to investigate further. Even if I filed a FoIA request they don’t really have anything but the final numbers to turn over, as far as I can tell.

Now, on to the electoral college. No one who’s posted here seems to understand the original purpose for it. Not a surprise, since they don’t bother to teach it in US schools, and there’s no reason anyone outside the US should know.
I think that most people just don’t know that the President was not, originally, elected by popular vote. The electoral votes were controlled by the state legislatures. It was only much later that they started throwing it to a popular vote. As I recall, the same was true of US Congress positions.
In part, this was to try and afford some balance between small and large states, in the same way the House of Representatives and the Senate are supposed to. But the primary motivation was to act a check on federal power. The thought was that the state legislatures wouldn’t allow people into federal office if it was likely they’d try to shift the power from the states to the federal government.

Obviously, it hasn’t worked. Still, comparing the growth of the federal government before and after the popular vote method became common would be interesting. Might have to look at that this weekend.

Ted November 17, 2006 1:46 PM

“That the electoral college system is ridiculously undemocratic is so obvious that it does not merit serious discussion.”

A great many pretty sharp people spent a good deal of time debating this in the late 1780s – it may be informative to read up on it. Madison kept very thorough notes, and he, Hamilton and Jay wrote quite a bit more (as Publius) on the rationale to get the constitution ratified.

If you really get into their debate, the electoral college doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. In fact, you might even gain a little more respect for how much thought went into that short document.

Jim November 17, 2006 1:53 PM


Any particular reason that in your recent posts you are pairing “systemic error” with “random error” instead of using the more common “systematic error.” I didn’t recall seeing the term “systemic error” before, though my background is in the natural sciences.

I have looked a little and it seems that some people are trying to make “systemic error” distinct from “systematic error”, but it is not clear to me if you are trying to make that same distinction, or if you have some other reason for picking “systemic.”

piglet November 17, 2006 2:25 PM

“A great many pretty sharp people spent a good deal of time debating this in the late 1780s” Well, Plato and Aristotle had some very interesting idea more than 2000 years ago. Shouldn’t we just stick with them?

More to the point, didn’t one reason for the electoral college system have to do with securing a higher share of power for the slave states?

Arno Schäfer November 17, 2006 9:50 PM

People, stop! The question should never even arise whether there should be a revote or not. As long as the system has no way of doing a recount and has to rely exclusively on the internals of some machine, you can never be sure the results have not been tampered with – whether the result was close or not. As we have seen again and again, voting machines are prone to failure, so voting machines without a verifiable paper trail should never have been allowed in the first place! If this was a banking application, nobody would even dream to use a system that has no way of auditing or verification.

It is really not so hard, is it? I mean: what do you want to achieve by using machines anyway? I can think of only two reasons: getting the results faster, and eliminating ambiguity in the interpretation of a ballot. It is reasonable to use computers for that, but this needs to be done without the possibility of tampering.

Making machine voting secure actually seems very easy to me: once the voter has voted, the vote is printed on a piece of paper and handed to the voter. The voter can verify that what is printed on the paper is his/her actual vote. He/she then leaves the voting booth and places the paper vote in a ballot box. Once the vote is closed, the preliminary result from the voting machine is reported to the central election office immediately. Then the paper votes are counted – no hurry there. If the results match, no problem. If they do NOT match, the paper votes can be counted again to make sure, but ultimately the paper votes count. That is the final or official election result.

This process IMHO completely eliminates the need to rely on the manufacturer of the voting machine to be honest and competent. The source code does not need to be public or trusted, the machine does not even need to be tamper proof. If voting equipment malfunctions, this is immediately apparent, and the manufacturer can be complained to. There can be any number of manufacturers of voting machines, and buyers of voting machines can concentrate on visible features such as ease of use, reliability, support of foreign languages etc.

Given the myriad problems with voting machines in the past few elections, this is the only solution that makes any sense to me. The only aspect of this scheme that might be subject to discussion is whether to make the counting of the paper ballots mandatory every time, or only when there is any doubt. I think it should be mandatory every time – IMHO that is a small price to pay for reliable elections.

This solution seems so simple and obvious to me that I begin to doubt whether I am missing something. Is my logic flawed?

Best Regards,


the other Greg November 17, 2006 11:12 PM

The “perverse effect” is not that a “small subset of the voter base” effectively decides the outcome, but that the party which manages to scrounge up 50%+1 feels free to trample the rights and opinions of the other 50%; indeed, appears to despise them.

There will never be freedom or democracy in USA until that attitude is unlearned.

MathFox November 18, 2006 9:22 AM

Greg, In our country we have enough choice of viable political parties to force them into coalition governments. Usually the biggest party in our country has around 30% of the seats in parliament. What should be changed in the US voting system to achieve that?

I don’t know why people object to revotes because “it may change the outcome of the election”. Yes, revotes are bad, because it indicates that big errors were made in capturing the original vote. Deciding not to do a revote “because it may change the outcome of the election” is an open invitation to election fraudsters to do their work.

yRFID November 19, 2006 3:13 AM

Continuing my previous post:
I think a re-vote should be automatic when the two conditions are statisfied and that polling officials should have the obligation to report any irregulatities.

Harry Potter November 19, 2006 4:44 PM

When the errors aren’t believed to be systematic, certify the result, even if noise might have swung the race. Same if the results were systematically skewed but clearly by too small a margin to swing the race.

If the race could have been swung, there should be a re-vote, restricted to the precincts and races where errors could swing the race and to people who actually voted. Nominally this isn’t a re-vote — voters are asked to tell us who they voted for, not who they support now. Even though it can’t be enforced. (It’s biased six ways to Sunday — probably in favor of Republicans usually — but at least it makes some kind of Platonic sense.)

All this assumes that there’s some non-partisan entity to decide whether there were systematic errors, whether they could have swung the race, and where they happened (and with what severity in each place). There often isn’t — here are some ideas for working around that:

(1) have nonpartisan secretaries of state, or a nonpartisan bureaucracy under the SoS
(2) let states call on federal government help for this — an arm of the GAO or Justice Department, say
(3) link re-vote procedures to criminal convictions. Results can’t be certified while a certain kind of fraud trial is happening, and if there’s a conviction there has to be a re-vote
(4) forget about nonpartisanship and have two secretaries of state, one from each of the two largest parties in the state. I don’t see how this could possibly work
(5) have laws to prevent shenanigans after every election — elections won by a good margin get harder to contest.

Harry again November 19, 2006 4:57 PM

A follow-up — really we need to (1) stop the catfight after every election and (2) truly be fair.

We want as few opinions as possible rendered by partisan officials (or any officials). And accurate voting procedures.

the other Greg November 20, 2006 9:59 PM

Mathfox, you are asking if I think we should use markers instead of pencils or maybe change the font, when a larger-than-life portrait of Big Brother is hung on every wall, in the background an enormous white pyramid… it’s hard to tell, out of focus, but surely it is Minilove… to remind us of the consequences of an incorrect vote.

piglet November 21, 2006 2:41 PM

“The “perverse effect” is not that a “small subset of the voter base” effectively decides the outcome, but that the party which manages to scrounge up 50%+1 feels free to trample the rights and opinions of the other 50%”

I agree this is a problem, and one of the most important jobs a good constitution should handle is precisely to protect those who, temporarily or systematically, find themselves in the minority. However, you should agree that the problem becomes only worse when a party representing less than 50% gets the power to trample on the majority of the people. This is possible in the US electoral system. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000, the GOP lost the popular vote in almost all general elections since 1945 as far as I know. Still they often manage to get a disproportionate share of the power.

the other Greg November 22, 2006 4:10 AM

No, not worse.

It is as bad as it can be when any group tramples another. It is sadder when they claim to be the same nation. Saddest when they pretend to believe in freedom and democracy.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.