A Candle and a Crayon

Los Angeles held an election, and it seems like no one noticed.

There has been a lot of talk about “reforming” the process of local elections. For years, it has been safely all talk with little actual action. However, the ballot counting fiasco in Florida in 2000 caused attention to be focused strongly on the apparent ills in parts of the election process. Unfortunately, when government gets urged to “do something” it is not the government that gets left holding the hanging chad.

Voting is too important to be concealed behind too much technology. It should be trivial for any voter to directly verify that their ballot is marked correctly. It should be easy to verify that the polling place handled the ballots with due care and security. It should be possible for an interested citizen to follow the ballots from precincts to the counting facility. And it should be possible for an observer to verify that the system is honest and the end results match the votes as cast.

This is not a process that requires expensive, finicky, and power-hungry equipment widely deployed. The voter should be able to vote their ballots given shelter from the weather (National elections are the first Tuesday of November, hardly a red letter day for fine weather in most of the U.S.) and enough light to read by. The ballots should be tangible objects and the marks visible to the naked eye and clearly correspond to the ballot instructions.

Electronic voting is a bad idea from the outset. First, it requires that the voting booth be outfitted with the machine itself, and the machine requires power. In my precinct, the polling place has often been located in a donated living room in a small house whose wiring was state-of-the-art in 1940. Spare power outlets are a scarce commodity in the homes owned by the kind folk who allow strangers to traipse through their living rooms and garages.

Second, it requires that the voter trust the machine. Adding a voter-verified paper trail is just adding another point of failure between the paper running out, ribbons running dry, paper jams, etc. The old lever-actuated tabulators had the same problem. You flip the marked switches (click the buttons on the touch screen) and pull the handle and hope that the labels on the back (in the software) have some relationship to the switches you flipped (buttons you clicked).

Third, even if the source of the machine and its software appears trustworthy, can anyone verify that the system deployed actually functions? Can it be adequately defended against a virus or worm that might modify only a few percent of the vote, and then only during some times of the day on Election Day itself? Certainly there are those who would argue that only fully inspected, audited systems would be deployed. But notice that the states buying the currently available systems have been largely unable to get the right to conduct their own audits of the source code, and there have been issues with version control that, in California at least, caused one manufacturer to loose state certification.

Finally, it isn’t transparent in its operation. The voter clicks a spot on a touch screen. The machine claims it registered a vote. Perhaps it even prints a few lines of text on a roll locked behind glass. At some point memory cards and presumably the spent rolls are gathered for tabulation. But by that point the votes themselves are concealed in memory devices that are much easier to loose than entire ballot boxes, and those ballot boxes get lost occasionally today.

Don’t even mention internet voting.

As the title says, “A Candle and a Crayon” is all the voter should need beyond a dry place to sit or stand.

It is reasonable to improve the technologies in use for counting the ballots at the central site. It is, of course, important that any counting and tabulating equipment be audited, inspected, and verified. But since there will be only a few central tabulation points per county (perhaps only one) it is reasonable to use more automation.

Having now used the ink-a-vote cards in a couple of local elections, I find that they largely meet my criteria. They are sturdy cards marked with ink pens. The voting booth contains only a frame that holds up the ballot pages and allows the card to be slid behind where it can be marked as pages are turned. Its principle shortcomings relate to the pens drying up when left uncapped by prior voters, and by a need for good eyesight to verify that the dots actually landed on the right spots.

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