Monday, January 10, 2005

Voting machine reform

Touch-screen voting is potentially a good thing. Think about the difference between using an ATM machine and going to a bank where all bookkeeping is done by hand. Doing this stuff by computer is potentially accurate and efficient. The immediate trouble is there is no way to tell whether it's been done right. This has to be handled, or else give up the machines.

The first natural approach is to try to make sure the hardware and software is correct. With current designs this is pretty much impossible. Even if the voting machine companies revealed their secrets, neither they nor anyone else can verify their designs. Some of them use smart-cards. These are tiny computers that sit in cards about the size of credit cards, that you slide into the voting machine. They carry computer code that can reprogram the voting machine. You must verify not only the software on the voting machine but also the software on each card. Some systems use complex wireless networking. They have complex methods to make sure that outsiders can't pose as a computer on the network and present false data. But if an outside computer can after all do that, how would you know? It's very hard to understand the methods they use to stop intrusion. And what if they designed the system to let them break into it, would you catch them? Even if experts say the voting will be done correctly, how can they be sure?

The second approach is to try to make the system work even if the machines are unreliable. The first obvious approach is to make a complete paper trail. If the paper records back up the computer records, then it's correct. Ideally this would involve perfect printers. Every transaction on a particular voting machine gets recorded on a single long continuous scroll of paper. Even if you get access to the paper you can't insert new records without pasting in a new section of paper, and you can't remove old ones without cutting the paper. It ought to be reliable. But what if the printer breaks down? Say it jams and somebody's vote turns into an overprinted mess. Do you reprint that, or do you accept the data is lost? Either way there's room for glitches that could look like cheating. And where there are glitches that look like cheating there's room for cheating that looks like glitches. So you need a perfect printer, and those are extremely expensive and still not always quite perfect.

Well, but you don't have to make it that good. You can have a printer that makes a bunch of individual paper ballots. You vote with the touchscreen. The printer prints out a copy of your vote and shows it to you behind glass. You agree that this is how you voted -- if it isn't then you squawk. Once you agree, the last step is that the voting machine counts your vote and your paper ballot goes into the ballot box. Paper ballot boxes don't have to be checked unless there's some question, but they *can* be checked if there's any question. You might check a few of them just on general principle, but not too many because it's a slow expensive unreliable process. The advantage of this approach is that you can use cheap printers. The ballots don't have to be attached to each other any more than traditional paper ballots were. If a printer jams you just plug in a new one, cancel the unfinished vote, and try again. The disadvantage is that the backup is no better than the old inefficient unreliable voting system.

Here is another approach. It doesn't require that the machines be reliable. Here goes.

When you vote, you have a pinpad that you use to type in a set of numbers, say 8 digits. The voting machine adds its own 8 digits and prints out a slip of paper with all 16 digits. And it lets you vote. The votes are not just counted by the machines, they go onto a website where every vote is displayed with its 16-digit number. Anybody can count the votes.

You can look up your vote by looking up the 16-digit number, and you can tell whether the vote that got recorded for you is the vote you actually cast. If your vote is not there, then your vote was not counted and you have a right to be upset about it. If your vote has been changed then you similarly have a right to be upset. There isn't any way to prove the vote was yours. The slip of paper with your number could have been printed on some other printer. But your name is on the list -- you voted. If the vote you claim was yours is somebody else's, whose is it? Which vote is yours? If it turns into a big enough outcry that people actually check, it would be very hard to falsify more than a very few votes.

There are other ways to cheat besides changing a vote. One way is to add extra voters with their own numbers. They'll never look up those numbers. So it takes traditional methods to make sure that only legitimate voters vote. Still, for each precinct you can publish the list of voters who voted along with the list of code-numbers and votes. If a name is on the list that doesn't belong there, people may eventually notice.

The good thing about this approach is that it's somewhat transparent. You aren't depending on election committees to detect fraud, you can do some of it yourself. The voting machine can't just mess up the totals -- if you have 649 voters listed as voting then you'd better have 649 votes. And if you do, you can count them and so can anybody else. The main bad thing about this approach is that the votes aren 't completely secret-ballot. You get a slip of paper with your code on it, that shows how you voted. If somebody can intimidate you into voting the way they want, they can also intimidate you into showing them the code to prove it. Similarly if you sell your vote, you can prove that you did what you're getting paid for. It isn't *really* proof since with a little bit of prep time you could look up somebody else's number and print it on similar paper, but it's enough to cause problems.

It's bad for voters to get intimidated by employers or police or priests etc. But I'd rather have a voting system where people can stand up for the truth if they have the will to, than one with no way to tell whether your vote was falsified.


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