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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 3/29/19

Does Maryland have the answer for verifying America's vote count?

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Technology is bringing more accountable elections, but some activists disagree.

Making Every Vote Count
Making Every Vote Count
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As many states and counties buy new voting systems for the first time in a decade or more, new technologies are offering the prospect of verifying vote counts and election results with unprecedented precision and detail. But critics say they won't bring more trustworthy elections.

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The latest controversies are mostly centered around a system that replaces a voter's ink-marked paper ballot with a printed ballot summary card listing their choices in bar codes and printed text, the latest version of a so-called ballot-marking device(BMD). But this fray, which is riddled with confusing claims, does highlight that the technology surrounding how votes can be counted and verified has evolved.

Part of that evolution raises valid and timely questions, such as: What's the best form of paper ballot? What's a legal election record (as most voting laws predate digital files, which range from spreadsheets of votes cast to digital images of every ballot)? And how precisely should initial vote counts be checked before winners are declared?

In many respects, the starting line for these questions goes back a generation. It began with the response to voting system failures during Florida's 2000 presidential election. Then, punch card ballots failed to be read due to still-attached perforations. Congress responded with 2002's Help America Vote Act, a law spending billions on what was then widely seen as the best response to problematic paper punch cards: entirely paperless voting systems.

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Seeing a windfall, the largest manufacturers quickly created computer touch screen voting systems called DREs, for direct recording electronic machines. In short order, DREs soon became known for technical shortcomings, erratic performance, hacking vulnerability, and an inability to verify votes or conduct recounts. Ballots were replaced by what was recorded -- or, in some cases, not recorded on memory cards. A backlash ensued -- including, in some quarters, a visceral distrust that lingers today whenever computers are used to replace paper, pens and hands-on procedures.

Today, 75 percent of the country has revived using paper-ballot-based voting systems. In most jurisdictions, electronic scanners tally the votes. Scanners do that by first creating a digital image of the paper ballot, where software then identifies the ballot layout (which varies with local contests) and analyzes the ink marks to count the votes. Newer systems save these digital ballot images a feature that has enabled some states and counties to double-check the initially reported results before declaring winners.

While there are different makes and models of voting systems, the reemergence of ballot-marking devices to replace ink-marked paper is now roiling anti-computerized-voting activists. The foremost opponents are academics and grassroots organizers who spent years opposing DREs and see this design as reverting to that system.

With today's BMDs, voters use a computer touch screen to mark their choices. This approach seeks to avoid ambiguity surrounding sloppy ink marks on paper. Voters then approve their choices, after which the machine prints out a ballot summary card with bar codes and text listing their votes. Other parts of this system create a digital image of the summary cards, and analyze its bar codes to count votes and tabulate results.

(This general design has been slightly modified and used for many years as a voting station to assist people with disabilities. But as manufacturers are promoting its wider use, its critics essentially see it as a return to DREs with a paper trail.)

Lots of heat, far less light

The critics believe there are too many hidden or hackable parts that can be targeted by malevolent actors to steal votes and rig results in short, resurrecting old criticisms of DREs. But stepping back, examining these latest charges can illustrate how much has changed in voting technology, and that counting votes and verifying results could be more precise than ever if best practices were more widely used.

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To start, there are big differences between DREs and the newest BMDs. As Ben Adida, a cybersecurity expert and voting system engineer who created a non-profit to build an inexpensive and open-source voting system, recently tweeted, "equating Ballot-Marking Devices with paperless voting machines is an exaggeration." Yes, these devices could be better, he added, noting that their bar codes and printed voter choices could be larger and more readable. But the newest BMD systems do produce a secondary record of the vote cast that can be verified and compared to its internal electronic tabulation, he said.

"Paper is there. Mismatched barcodes can be discovered with auditing. And improving paper verification is doable," Adida tweeted. "It's easy to be a security maximalist while ignoring other requirements. We need to do better than that, be more subtle, take other requirements into account."

The maximalists to whom Adida was referring are a mix of academic computer scientists and grassroots election integrity experts, such as those cited recently in Politico who have been equating BMD systems (that may soon be acquired in Georgia, Pennsylvania, New York and elsewhere) with DREs. In short, the critics are firmly rejecting the prospect of any technological progress or better verification of the first unofficial vote counts. As Adida observed, there's no middle ground.

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Steven Rosenfeld  covers democracy issues for AlterNet. He is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and has reported for National Public Radio, Monitor Radio, Marketplace,  TomPaine.com  and many newspapers. (more...)
 
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Phillip Michaels

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While it reads as though this is a balanced argument advocating for some sort of electronics between the voter and the record of the voter's choices, it isn't. Consider that all the electronic systems that put the computer between the voter and his or her voting record (all BMDs) require a brand new task of every voter in order to be certain that they work correctly and work without intentional electronic manipulation of the vote, the voter has to check the system's work.

So, if one inserts a hacking program between the voter and the voter's record there is, of course, the chance that the voter will catch the manipulation. However, in most elections one need only change a few percentage points of ballots to change the outcome of the election. So, if 50% of the voters check their printed output carefully and find manipulation then only half of the hacked votes will be found and the number caught will still only be a small percentage in any polling place's total experience leading to the belief that the user was the problem. Experience with DREs equipped with paper tapes suggests that the number of people likely to add to their election day responsibilities "checking the paper output of the system" is fewer than 10%.

Finally, why the love affair with putting computers in between the voter and his voting record? Paper ballots are faster, cheaper, and much more transparent. Anyone taking the time to write an article like this should have discovered that. Further, the writer here confuses precision (something computers are very good at) with accuracy. Using a computer to print the voter's ballot may lead to very, very precise answers that have been changed by a hacking program.

The reader here should ask himself, if paper ballots (scanned into a computer after the ballot is marked) are faster, cheaper, and more transparent why would anyone advocate a more complicated system? There really is only one answer.

Submitted on Friday, Mar 29, 2019 at 10:41:25 PM

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Steven Rosenfeld

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Reply to Phillip Michaels:   New Content

This comment is wrong on key points. Paper ballots are preferable for many reasons, primarily having to do with discerning voter intent as an original document. But the assertion that hand counting is more accurate is false. That has been shown in many evidence-based scientific studies. Why? People get tired and sloppy--especially when ballots are complex, there's simultaneous counts and the volume is huge. A recent study of the Wisconsin 2016 presidential recounts found the scanners were more accurate than hand counts. I know you won't believe it, but it's true. Google that, Charles Stewart and others at MIT.


The manpower involved is also not cheaper, despite that assertion as well. What this fellow and far too many progressives in the so-called election integrity community say and believe is here is no use for technology. Sorry, I don't buy it. I have consistently advocated for the smartest use of analogue and digital technologies; paper records and verifiable software. This is the 21st century. You can create digital libraries of ballot images, use software to identify where votes are not properly tallied, and then pull the paper ballot from that library if you make the right decisions on setting up this process.


My point in writing this story is it's FAR TOO EASY for many progressives to keep repeating old narratives and saying no to anything that advances the state of the art. Come on, do you want to be an absolutist naysayer, or advocate for something that produces evidence trails that can be examined--including in the biggest urban counties. I've been around all those people on the left who try to connect dots, but fail to produce any evidence since Ohio in 2004. That paradigm has shifted, whether you want to believe or not.


I'm not saying ballot-marking devices are the preferable choice. But to say they can't be audited is a big lie, serving no one. If those who keep saying no actually advocated for the kinds of audits that Maryland is doing, and Florida may do, we'd have a better more accountable landscape in 2020. Rather than being so sanctimonious about paper and manual counts, how about trying to advance the state of the possible?


SR



Submitted on Saturday, Mar 30, 2019 at 12:08:19 AM

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Reply to Steven Rosenfeld:   New Content

Mr. Rosenfeld, I did not say anything about hand-counting, though there are plenty of things to say. I did refer to scanning in the paper ballot into computer systems in the last paragraph, but leave the merits or demerits of hand-counting for another time.

I'm sorry, but I've been in this fight for well over 10 years and what I can tell you with certainty is the experiment of the last 13 years using computers to capture the vote has failed. It has demonstrated what computer experts around my world here knew from the beginning, computers are far to easy to get around. The user is required to just trust what is going on in the box. As a result they are not appropriate to be in between the voter and his record, period. Scanning hand-marked ballots into a system and doing appropriate audits works. It's much cheaper (operationally as well as in terms of capital required), it's faster in the polling place (proved this here in St. Louis County--700,000 registered voters) in 2010, and--as you have pointed out--a paper record (hand-marked only) is very difficult to hack. Keeping a computer between the voter and his/her vote record only benefits those who want to fiddle with the vote.

Finally, I should point out that the big flaw with advocating technological solutions is complexity. Vote results that we can trust in this adversarial election process demand simplicity where everyone can see what went on, where electronic election rigging clearly couldn't happen, and where no one has to trust anyone to come to accept the results. There is a place for computers in elections, but not on the front end and not on the back end without lots of randomized auditing.

Our painful experiment with computer voting over the last 13 years demonstrates that elective processes require simpler solutions. That is actually the new innovative thought for elections.

Submitted on Saturday, Mar 30, 2019 at 2:23:34 AM

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Washington's recount in the Gubernatorial election of 2006 is a more recent example. Obvious discrepancies in machine counts led Snohomish County to get rid of DREs.

That said, I tend to agree in theory with BMDs, as long as any report of a discrepancy is taken seriously and investigated by representatives of every party on the ballot to their complete satisfaction.

Submitted on Saturday, Mar 30, 2019 at 9:39:36 PM

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