This post originally appeared at Speak Out California.
I have been looking at the issue of computerized voting machine security for several years, and want to write about it today.
Many people have pointed out that there are a number of problems with the new touch-screen voting machines. They fear that these machines can be used to rig an election. Others feel more confident about the machines because they are "hi-tech" and computerized and make voting easier.
Computer experts warn that the machines cannot be trusted. Meanwhile, I have a relative who believes that computers can't make mistakes, so these machines will guarantee accurate vote counting.
I can give you my position on these machines in just a few words: "Prove it." Here is what I mean: The standard for trusting the results of an election should be based on what an average citizen can believe about the election results. If the election system that you set up is able to prove to an average citizen that the election results are accurate, then you have the right system in place. Elections are about average citizens making decisions and trusting the results, not about being told by people in positions of authority what has been decided and who our leaders will be. The whole "trust me" thing hasn't worked out so well in the past so people came up with "prove it" systems so everyone could see for themselves how the elections turned out.
Yes, I have an election system in mind that meets the "prove it" requirement. It's simple. I say that it simply doesn't matter what kind of machine (or no machine at all) is used in the voting booth or to count the votes later, as long as the voter can put a printed ballot in a ballot box. (The voter, of course, is expected to look over the printed ballot to be sure it has the right candidates and ballot measures marked. Just like with the old pen or punch card systems.)
Everyone understands printed ballots with marks on them, and putting the ballot into a ballot box. Time-honored methods for holding secure "prove it" elections with ballots have been worked out. At the start of the election day you check the ballot box to be sure it is empty. Each voter gets one ballot, marks it, and puts it in the box. At the end of the day the ballots are counted and the total is reported. Etc. I work in elections and I know the system well. It can be trusted.
If we use touch-screen computers as input devices to help the voter mark the ballot, all the better. This helps prevent mistakes like those in Florida in 2000. When the voter is ready the machine prints out a ballot with clear markings of the voter's choices. After the machine prints that ballot it doesn't matter if the machine has been hacked or is just making mistakes because you look at the ballot before putting it into the ballot box. And it doesn't matter how the count is reported because once you have a printed record of each voter's intentions, you can count them by hand if necessary. The voters or a trusted representative can watch the counting.
There is one safeguard that I think is very important. You must randomly test the reported vote counts against the paper ballots they are said to represent. And I am very strict about this part. If the count is off by even a single vote it means something is wrong with the counting system and the entire election needs to be counted by hand!
The controversy about touch-screen voting machines started because they do not use printed ballots that can prove the election's results to the average person! The machines come from private companies. Some of these prohibit anyone - even election officials - from knowing how they count the votes. There is no way at all to check whether the machines are reporting correct results. It is a matter of trusting these companies and not of proving to the average voter that the results can be trusted. We are just supposed to trust that the companies are telling us who won the elections! Remember what I said about being told by people in positions of authority what has been decided and who our leaders will be?
If these machines make mistakes or just break down, there is no way to figure out who really won the election. And if someone is able to rig the machines to change the vote counts, there is no way to know that, either. History tells us that this is a concern. People have gone to great lengths to rig even local elections. So with the huge stakes in today's election -- trillions of dollars and wars -- we certainly should understand that highly-skilled and well-funded attempts to dictate election results are likely to occur.
There are a number of ideas for making voting machines more reliable and harder to hack into and change results. One idea is that the public should be able to examine -- and experts allowed to repair and improve -- the source code for the programs used in the machines. This is called "open source" and the Open Voting Consortium has done a lot of great work in this area. (Send them some a few $$ to help their effort.) Open-source systems will help make the machines more reliable and easier to use and will reduce the chances that someone can try to rig an election. This is a great approach, but in the end it fails the "prove it" test. The average person doesn't understand the complicated programming involved. And there is no way to prove that the open-source code is the code that is actually running in every single voting machine on election day.
Other ideas involve elaborate security to test and guard the machines. This again fails the "prove it" test. Unless average people can see for themselves that the results are accurate, no security is sufficient.
I say that the system I describe above -- involving a paper ballot that the voter can check and put in a ballot box -- makes the reliability and security of any voting machines themselves less important because you can "prove it" by counting those paper ballots. You can test a sample of ballots against the reported counts, making it useless to try to hack the voting or counting machines themselves.
California's Secretary of State Debra Bowen understands these issues and is working hard to make sure that our state's elections are safe, fair and provable. Let's hope that the rest of the states can catch up to California.