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Computer Security Expert Bruce O'Dell: Testimony to NH Legislature

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We have identified a number of ways to ensure that the sample of ballots selected for UBS handcount is random. It is also important to make sure that absentee ballots are pooled with in-precinct ballots, and that both are sampled randomly. Once again the election practices in New Hampshire seem well-suited to a UBS-style protocol, since early voting (which introduces additional chain of custody risk) is not allowed, and absentee ballots are counted in-precinct on election night, and the pool of people familiar with efficient hand-count procedures is large.

Returning to the question posed earlier: the fundamental question - why should machines tally our votes in secret - remains unanswered. Other than for the obvious financial benefit of the vendors, why should voting be a transaction tallied in secret by machines, rather than a civic transaction performed by people in public view?

In fact, there is a fascinating study from 2001 (interestingly enough, published shortly before HAVA was enacted) which concluded that not only were hand-counted paper ballots the most accurate of all vote counting methods, measuring by residual vote rate, but that every single technological “innovation” of the last century - lever machines, punch cards, optical scan, DRE - actually measurably decreased the accuracy of the voting process. Their conclusion:

These results are a stark warning of how difficult it is to implement new voting technologies. People worked hard to develop these new technologies. Election officials carefully evaluated the systems, with increasing attentiveness over the last decade. The result: our best efforts applying computer technology have decreased the accuracy of elections, to the point where the true outcomes of many races are unknowable.

There is an entire industry which is predicated on the belief that computers are better than people when it comes to counting votes, yet the precise nature of the problem that electronic voting was intended to solve remains unclear. The balance of evidence indicates that while voting by computer may well be wide open to insider manipulation, and in practice has been plagued by glitches and inaccuracies, at least it’s more expensive than the alternatives. Even when legal paper ballots are tabulated on optical scanners, the effort required to put in place a statistically-valid hand-check of the machine tallies does tend to undermine the rationale for automation in the first place.

In the final analysis, I believe computer automation of voting will be regarded by future historians as one of the greatest blunders in the history of technology. Our choice now is to determine at what price - both in money and public good will - that realization will finally strike home. In the meantime, states like New Hampshire can take action to engage its citizens in safeguarding its democratic processes, though effective hand-count validation of optical scan vote counts.
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Nancy is best known as a national leader in the voting rights movement for her seminal work exposing the dangers and fallacies in various election reform efforts past, present and future.

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