Of That

Brandt Redd on Education, Technology, Energy, and Trust

02 November 2010

Coercing the Vote

Its election day again. This one has potential to be the most memorable in my lifetime. But my subject is is the security of the vote.

Last year I wrote about the insecurity of DRE voting machines. Those systems have not improved in the last year though there is growing awareness of their vulnerabilities.

This year we are voting for the first time in the State of Washington. In this state 38 of 39 counties use a vote by mail system. Eighteen days before the election, the county auditor mails ballots to all registered voters. Voters mark their ballots in the privacy of their homes. Ballots go into an inner "security" envelope and an outer mailing envelope. They sign an oath on the outer envelope and mail it in via US Mail or drop it in a specially marked, secure drop box on or before election day.

Vote by mail has some useful advantages:

  • Voters can take their time marking their ballot -- researching the candidates and issues that they might not have been aware of before looking at the ballot.
  • The cost of running an election is substantially reduced.
  • People who will be out of town on election day can cast their ballots early without figuring out special early voting provisions.
  • Paper ballots offer a physical record of voter intention that can be manually counted to verify that electronic scanners are working properly. Of course, manual counts aren't necessarily accurate either.
The system has some important safeguards:
  • The voter's name and voter ID number appear on the outer envelope ensuring that no voter votes more than once.
  • The ballot is inserted into an inner security envelope thereby allowing the ballot and the voter's name to be separated before the vote is visible.
  • The public is invited to observe the vote counting process to make sure that counting is done properly and confidentiality is maintained. Since counting is concentrated at a relatively few places, fewer observers are required to cover all locations.
However, there remain vulnerabilities:
  • Since ballots are marked away from the polling place, it is possible for someone to coerce another's vote and verify that the ballot is cast according to their mandate. Votes can literally be bought.
  • Individuals can steal ballots from mailboxes, mark them, forge the signature and send them in.
  • Unscrupulous mail workers could intercept and destroy ballots before they reach the counting place. Since the voter's name appears on the outer envelope, it is easy to do so selectively.
  • Sophisticated criminals could intercept the mail -- steam open the envelope and substitute a different ballot. Or simply replace with a forged outer envelope.
  • A bright-light scanner with digital image processing could penetrate the envelope and paper to detect how a particular ballot has been cast.
There's a big difference between these manipulations and hacking electronic voting machines. As I wrote last year, electronic voting machines can be hacked and the vote manipulated in such a way that no evidence is left behind. With the exception of coercion, the manipulations I've listed leave physical evidence.

Here are some additional safeguards that would help:
  • Move the voter ID number and the signature to the inside of a cleverly-designed envelope. This would keep casual manipulators from knowing which ballots to intercept.
  • Encourage voters to use drop boxes instead of mail as much as possible. Invite public observation of the drop box collection process.
  • Ensure voters know that coercion is a crime that should be reported.
  • Notify voters of when to expect their ballots in the mail and encourage reports of missing ballots.
Overall, I'm happier with Washington's vote by mail system than I am with Utah's Direct Entry machines. I just hope that people are on the lookout for manipulation.

The Following added on 4 November 2010 at 9:15am:

Since writing the original post I've learned two things. First, King County offers a website where I can track the processing of my ballot (you can too if you know my birthdate). As of this writing, they've received the ballot but it's awaiting verification of my signature before they process the vote. So, despite submitting my vote a week ago, it has yet to be counted. That's not too strange as there is still 30% of the statewide vote yet to count and a large fraction are in King County.

Second, this article from the freakonomics blog says that vote by mail actually reduces voter turnout -- at least in Switzerland.


  1. So, is this the only way to vote? Are there polls on election day, or only vote by mail?

  2. In all but one county in Washington State, the only option is to vote by mail. There are no polling places. Also check my additions to the original post about verifying my vote and impact on turnout.