Rise to Vote, Sir

Election Day was last week. I will let others comment on the results and the politics. I'm sure you've heard enough of that by now. But, I'd like to comment on the election itself. I wrote previously about my first experience with electronic voting machines. I don't recall what kind of machine was used last time, but this year it was an iVotronic. Googling suggests it was last time as well, but this year's machine seems different than what I remember. The user interface was fast and the touch screen was pretty accurate. What's not different is that I still have no idea if my vote was counted accurately, or at all.

You might say the same about paper ballots, but it's not quite the same. If paper ballots get misplaced, they still exist and are likely to be found eventually (I recall reading a story about a box found in a storage room at one precinct months after the election was over!) That's bad, but at least you find out there was a problem. When a computer loses something, it's likely just gone.

If you wanted to get rid of a bunch of paper votes, you'd have to gain physical access to them, and physically dispose of them. There's a chance someone will see you doing this, and you might leave evidence like fingerprints or traces of the disposal (ashes, shredded paper, whatever). To delete something electronically, you could be miles away, and nobody would see you do anything.

With paper if it's unclear what happened (ie the famous hanging chads), there is at least some evidence that can be reviewed and argued about. If the electronic voting machine says John Smith got 42 votes, well... I guess the answer is 42. There is no way to examine it. Many of the machines only report totals, or are otherwise essentially incapable of recounts. I guess this might reduce challenges and arguments over the results, but it certainly doesn't increase my confidence in the accuracy. And although the iVotronic machines are apparently capable of a paper audit trail, the machines here aren't configured for them, and how would I know that what was recorded in the totals matched my receipt anyway? In many ways, it seems the "benefit" of electronic voting machines to election board is not accuracy, but making it harder to detect problems and making challenges harder -- creating the perception of fewer problems.

If you needed any further evidence that these machines shouldn't be trusted, consider that most vendors require purchasing districts to sign agreements that prohibit the machines being made accessible to computer security experts to evaluate. There are only a few instances where experts have been able to examine the code in these machines, and when they did, like the famous leaked Diebold code, experts described the code as "amateurish" and insecure. There are independent labs that certify the machines, but the standards primarily have to do with things like accessibility and not security. One lab actually did go above and beyond and do in-depth security evaluations. They went out of business -- none of the vendors would use them!

While electronic voting machines do provide benefits, especially accessibility to the handicapped, I'm becoming more convinced that even if there was transparency, the whole concept is wrong. There should only be electronic input-assistance machines: Voters would input their votes on the machine and then the machine would produce a paper ballot, that could be examined by the voter and then submitted for counting (and recounting, if necessary) in the traditional way. You get the benefits of the electronic machine (input assistance, accessibility, less ambiguous votes since the machine could produce nice, dark, perfectly filled in bubbles or whatever), but without giving up on the benefits of paper (audit trail, ability to recount, etc). This is what Avi Rubin proposes in a recent segment of NPR's Science Friday, and I think he has the right idea. (This was a followup to a previous segment on electronic voting).


And no sooner do I finish this then I find this story: Candidate gets no votes -- but he voted for himself:

WALDENBURG, Arkansas (AP) -- Randy Wooten figured he would get at least one vote in his bid for mayor of this town of 80 people -- even if it was just his own.

He did not. Now he has to decide whether to file a formal protest.

Wooten got the news from his wife, Roxanne, who went to City Hall on Wednesday to see the election results.

"She saw my name with zero votes by it. She came home and asked me if I had voted for myself or not. I told her I did," said Wooten, owner of a local bar.

However, Poinsett County results reported Wednesday showed incumbent William H. Wood with 18 votes, challenger Ronnie Chatman with 18 votes and Wooten with zero.

"I had at least eight or nine people who said they voted for me, so something is wrong with this picture," Wooten said.

Poinsett County Election Commissioner Junaway Payne said [...] "The votes were cast on an electronic voting machine, but paper ballots were available."