How do you vote?

6 01 2008

I guess I should say up front that I am not that civic-minded of a person. I don’t get terribly worked up about many issues and am generally apolitical, though I don’t think I have ever voted for a Republican since I’ve been able to do so.

But the whole discussion of how we vote has caught my attention. The New York Times has a great article this weekend about electronic voting machines, and in particular, the headaches involved in getting the Diebold machines to work correctly in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. Joel Spolsky took note of the software issues that Diebold’s engineers ran into (and apparently didn’t test) and Jon Gruber mentioned that, by golly, the people complaining loudly about how insecure and unverifiable the systems were, were actually right.

I have more than just a passing interest in this topic, because this year I decided to fulfill my civic duty by being a polling inspector for the Santa Clara County board of elections. That essentially means I am in charge of a polling location — checking out the polling place in advance, getting supplies, setting things up, tearing them down, and returning ballots to the collection station. I’m using online training that explains each person’s job, and the procedures to follow.

But, there’s just one problem. The training doesn’t talk about the voting systems we will be using! California’s Secretary of State decertified the touch-screen machines in mid-2007, and now we will be using optical scan paper ballots instead. However, all of the training refers to the old EDGE voting systems — no indication at all that we’re voting with paper ballots this time. (UPDATE: I happy to say I’ve now wrong on this. A few days after I wrote this, an entirely new training site came online, which does discuss how to handle optical scan ballots. Of course, there is one remaining EDGE unit for those that need it, so now we have to handle two completely separate ways to vote at one polling station.)

From the article’s conclusion:

There are also serious logistical problems for the states that are switching to optical scan machines this election cycle. Experts estimate that it takes at least two years to retrain poll workers and employees on a new system; Cuyahoga County is planning to do it only three months. Even the local activists who fought to bring in optical scanning say this shift is recklessly fast — and likely to cause problems worse than the touch-screen machines would.

Well, I guess we’re going to top them by completing the training just one month before the Feb. 5 primary election.

Technology cannot fix what is inherently a logistical and personal interaction-based system. I believe I commented a number of times on about my experiences voting in Cleveland, and I still believe that blaming the technology of the voting machines misses the point entirely. The actions of a huge number of individuals make up an election, and the technology is one small part of the system.

If we really believe that an open-sourced or other publicly audit-able voting system is going to improve the security and trustworthiness of our elections, we should be asking the manufacturers of optical scan systems to make their software available for review as well. The main difference that I can see between optical scan and electronic touch systems is that in optical scan systems the voter has the final responsibility to ensure that their vote was cast exactly the way they wanted it. The current generation of electronic touch systems do not provide a sufficient backup of the user’s preferences. But those ballots are still subject to being miscounted by a buggy or hacked system that optically scans their vote instead of performing an electronic tally. Optical scan voting systems are, to paraphrase Churchill, the worst possible system you could use for voting, except for all of the others that have been tried. I predict that in a few years we will see a new generation of touch-screen systems with more sophisticated printing solutions that address the remaining concerns. But for now, the optical scan systems will be good enough.




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