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Voting Early: Sounds Good, But Its Not the Answer

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Message Stephen Unger

Much has been written about the perils of e-voting machines--I've personally contributed to that literature (e.g., click here).  The abysmal quality of the systems on the market, has produced all kinds of breakdowns and faulty results.  In addition, there is the more sinister, and almost impossible to prevent, or detect, threat of wholesale fraud, perpetrated either by built-in clandestine system features, or by outsider tampering.  This is why, along with many other computer engineers, I advocate use of the hand-counted paper ballot (HCPB) systems used in most other industrialized countries, as well as in many parts of Maine, New Hampshire, and other states (see click here).

In recognition of this problem, many political organizations are urging people to vote by mail where possible, or, in some states, to vote early, usually with paper ballots.  Unfortunately, this apparently sensible course of action is not a solution.  Why not?  What is the difference between HCPB on election day and an early voting form of HCPB?

The answer has to do with the public monitoring of the process. In a proper HCPB election (see Jones), every step of the voting process after the marking of the ballot, is under continuous observation by representatives of at least two competing political entities.  That is, the voter deposits the ballot in the ballot box in full public view; the box remains in public view at all times, starting with a check to see that it is initially empty.  When the voting is ended, the box is emptied onto a counting table, and the counting process takes place under public observation.  After counting is complete, and the results publicly posted, the ballots are put in an appropriate container that is sealed, and which can be opened only via the use of at least two different keys in the custody of competing political entities.  It is then stored securely, where it can be accessed only via the multiple key procedure, until the election results are finally certified.

Sadly, it appears that absentee ballots and the early voting process violates the above procedure big time in almost all (perhaps all) jurisdictions.  For example, in Rockland County, NY, where I live, early voting involves completing a paper ballot, inserting it in an envelope, sealing it, and depositing it in an open box on an office desk.  The box is kept in the office and, on election day, the ballots are counted.  (I don't know how the counting is done.)  In the case of absentee voting, ballots are mailed to voters and then mailed back to the Board of Elections (BoE).  The opening of the envelopes and the tabulation process appear to be completely in the hands of BoE employees, who have access to the ballots at all times.  For both early voting and absentee voting, since the ballot boxes are not properly secured, they are also vulnerable to intruders.

It should be obvious that, where there are such gaping holes in the ballot custody process, opportunities for rampant fraud are unlimited.  Note that where machines are used for early vote counting, the same problems exist, with the added feature that the machines themselves can be rigged.

It is rather late in the day to do anything about this for the current election, but, for starters, people might, perhaps via local party organizations, insist on having the ballots properly stored until tabulation, having multiple observers monitor the counting process, and having the ballots properly sequestered after the initial counting so as to make recounts a bit more meaningful.  The damage might already have been done during the time that the ballot boxes were unprotected.

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I am an engineer. My degrees are in electrical engineering and my work has been in the digital systems area, mainly digital logic, but also computer organization, software and theory. I am a Professor, Emeritus, Computer Science and Electrical (more...)

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