06 November 2012

Election Technology Update

It's election day in the U.S. and most of us are fatigued by the campaigns and will be relieved to have them over. Barring an electoral college anomaly there will be more voters who are pleased with the result than dismayed by it (it's a tautology).

I wrote about my misgivings with touchscreen direct entry voting systems in 2009. Things haven't improved since then. The big risk is indetectable vote manipulation. Of course all voting systems, whether electronic or paper, are subject to some form of manipulation. The key is to set up protocols so that manipulations leave evidence. For example, paper balloting systems often count the number of ballots cast and compare that with the number of ballots counted. The number of ballots cast is transmitted to the counting location through a different means from the transmission of the ballots themselves.

In 2010 I wrote about King County, Washington's vote-by-mail system. In addition to mailing ballots, voters can deliver them to dropboxes conveniently located around the county. Not only do they save postage, dropboxes appear to be a more secure delivery method as observers from both major parties watch the sealing and collection of ballot boxes. Other observers watch the opening and counting processes.

As a paper and optical scan method, King County's is among the more secure – once the ballot is delivered to a dropbox. The glaring weakness is privacy. Vote-by-mail opens the door to voter coercion because there's no inspector and booth to ensure privacy when the vote is actually cast. It's entirely possible for others to pre-fill the ballot and simply ask the voter to sign – with intimidation if necessary.

Of course, manipulation of this sort doesn't scale well. Sure it can happen in pockets but widespread, coordinated vote manipulation would be hard to achieve as the more voters are intimidated, the greater the likelihood that someone complains. Therefore it's reasonable to assume that deliberate manipulation will be a small fraction of total votes cast.

This leads to an interesting conclusion: Though we aspire to make every vote count, there's some degree of error regardless of the way votes are cast and counted. Sometimes it's deliberate fraud, manipulation or intimidation. Sometimes it's poorly designed ballots, miscalibrated voting machines or natural disasters. There are two ways to deal with this. Our current system presumes that if the difference in votes is within the margin of error, democracy is preserved regardless of which candidate takes office. That presumption was tested in the 2000 U.S. election.

The alternative is to require another election if the vote is within the margin of error. That approach carries a tremendous cost in terms of time, money and extended uncertainty. Despite misgivings, I have to agree with those who wrote the constitution. I may not like the outcome when the vote is close. I may even believe that the count is inaccurate. But I do believe that Democracy is preserved.

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