Insomnia Log

This is what keeps me awake at night???

Who needs sleep? (well you’re never gonna get it)
Who needs sleep? (tell me what’s that for)
Who needs sleep? (be happy with what you’re getting,
There’s a guy who’s been awake since the second world war)

-- words and music by Steven Page & Ed Robertson

Location: Boulder, Colorado, United States

Everything you need to know about me can be found in my posts

Saturday, January 07, 2006

How Not to Run an Election (without even trying)

Here in Boulder, controversies related to the running of elections are once again in vogue. You may recall, after the last presidential election we were pretty much a laughingstock due to the fact that we were still counting ballots for days after the winners were announced, essentially disenfranchising the entire county. Now, the county is putting out a new request for proposal for a system to replace the bad voting system put in place in 2004 in response to the Help America Vote Act, which was in response to the debacles in Florida in the 2000 presidential election. Got that?

The latest RFP specifies, among other things, DRE (electronic voting) systems. This is undoubtedly one of the stupidest ideas ever sold to the public by the influence peddlers.

Let's be clear. I have been in the software development business for over 25 years. This includes holding dozens of patents on various aspects of software. I love technology. I think there is a place for technology to improve many aspects of our life, including voting. However, I know enough to know that we should not trust software with something as critical as voting, with no backup plan. How often does your computer crash? How often do you hear about a new virus/worm/spyware, or other malicious software attack? How valuable is the ability to control the vote, and what would it be worth to develop a way to be able to pick the winner in advance? And know this, that no developer of an electronic voting machine is ever going to allow any outside person examine the design and code of their system.

Electronic voting is acceptable with two conditions:
  1. There must be a paper backup. The paper ballot must be shown to the voter for approval, so they can confirm that it matches their vote. And the ballot must be available for recounts. When this system is first put into place, we must start with liberal recount policies (lots of manual recounts) until the system has proven reliable. At that point, we should continue with spot checks, plus forced recounts whenever there is anything suspicious.

  2. A manual backup voting system must be in place. If you get to the voting location and they can't get the darn thing to boot up, you need to be able to vote manually.

Anybody who puts a system in place that does not meet these conditions should be subject to immediate recall election!

So, what went wrong with the 2004 presidential election in Boulder? The most obvious problem was how long it took to count the ballots. However, look at the voting process itself. After waiting in line at the polling location, there were four additional stations at which you may have to wait (look you up in the computer, print your ballot, wait for a polling booth, place your vote).

The ballot itself is designed for an optical scanner. If you are thinking number two pencils and small ovals you get the idea, except that here you use a ball point pen and huge rectangles. The technology sure has gotten worse since I took the SATs. You could have carpal tunnel syndrome by the time you are done filling in your choices.

Then you put your ballot into the security envelope, walk up to the ballot box, take it out of the security sleeve (in front of the election judge and everybody else) and deposit it into the ballot box. Am I being super sensitive, or is that just an obvious security problem?

Another problem that got no press was the handling of absentee voters. If you are out of the country, the only way to vote is to mail in your request for an absentee ballot (you can't do this very far in advance, even if you know you are going to be gone), receive the ballot by return mail, and then send in your ballot by mail. By my count, that process relies on quick mail delivery three times in a row within a short period of time, which is not a given if you are in some countries. I have friends who were in Mexico and were unable to vote because this process broke down.

But the fundamental problem is HAVA. It was passed after the 2000 presidential election, mostly so that congress could say that they were doing something. There was no trying to figure out what the best solution would be, or what reasonable timetables would be, or how to experiment with different processes in different locations to find the best. There had to be a quick fix. In Boulder, we had a punch card system that had worked reliably for many years. But this was no longer acceptable. We had to trade it in on something untried, because people in congress had to feel good about themselves.

So, bring on the new system. But be careful, because we voters are paying attention, and the second thing to get voted may be the people who put the new system in place.

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