Florida to Shift Voting to Paper Trail

Posted on Friday 2 February 2007

Apparently, Florida’s new governor, Charlie Crist, has seen the light. He has mandated that the state move away from the touch-screen electronic voting machines, to ones that have a paper audit trail. In this New York Times article, several counties, including Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and Sarasota County, Florida, were already in the process of moving away from the controversial machines.

Crist hopes to have the entire state of Florida moved over to the new machines in time for the 2008 elections. The sad part is that many of the changes that they are now just implemented I had discussed two years ago. The new machines are based on a paper ballot and optical scanning, with the paper ballot retained for use as an audit trail.

Originally, I wrote about this issue, back in February 2005, following problems with the election in 2004 with the touch-screen voting machines. While I wrote about a possible solution to the problem, I don’t believe either the Federal goverment or the state governments will implement the full solution as I see it, but even a partial solution is better than what is in used currently.

You can read my original post here, but I’ll quote the relevant portions of the post, updated and edited slightly for clarity and emphasis. I’ve also posted the NYT article as a PDF file, and it is available here.

What is the solution?

I agree that an electronic voting machine should be used… but it must be one that has an audit trail as well as a way to confirm to the voter that their vote has been registered as they intended. The United States already has a fairly secure large network of computerized data terminals that could easily be adopted for this purpose, or used as a basis for the design of a secure, auditable, electronic voting terminal network. You are probably asking what network am I talking about.

It’s simple… it is one that you see in use every day. It is fairly secure and the data entry system is fairly easy to use. The machines are capable of giving a printed confirmation of the voter’s selections for their records, as well as allowing the original paper ballots to be used as an audit trail in case of questionable vote counts. I am talking about the Powerball/MegaMillions lottery ticket terminal network. The terminals are close to being everywhere.

The terminals are designed for robust use, being in use every day—in fact there are probably more people playing Powerball and Megamillions than usually vote in this country’s elections. Sad, but true. The network these lottery ticket terminals use is fairly secure… with all that money at stake, the security has been pretty well proven.

The entry form for a five-ticket Powerball or Megamillions drawing has thirty data points on it. Easily enough to handle most elections, including state, local and federal races. The paper ticket can be retained in the machine to act as an audit trail. With no name on the ballot, anonymity is preserved. And the voter can get a printed sheet indicating their vote as registered by the machine, like the Powerball player gets their printed lottery ticket. As for simplicity… let’s face it… the average lottery machine operator isn’t a rocket scientist. These machines are designed to be operable by almost anybody with a minimum of training.

ed: These terminals are optical scanning terminals, much like the ones being suggested for use in Florida.

Transparency and Security

The election equipment should be designed and manufactured by a group of manufacturers, with no one company controlling the full-design and manufacture of any single machine. This may make the election equipment more expensive, but it would reduce the chances of an election being influenced by the political bias of any one manufacturer or designer.

The software and code for the election equipment should be open source-based code and tested by a politically diverse group of programmers and software engineers. The reason I say politically diverse as opposed to politically neutral, is no individual is going to be truly neutral, but by having a broad range of political diversity in the testing group, no one political philosophy will be able to bias the results of the software testing. All communications used by election equipment and its associated network must be encrypted using openly accepted standards of encryption security.

ed: Currently, the electronic voting machines use proprietary software, that has not been reviewed for bugs or other problems. Most of the companies are using outdated security encryption protocols and depending on security-through obscurity, which has been proven time-and-again to be unsafe.

Unify Election Laws

The election laws in this country need to be unified… so that a single standard applies to all the voters in the country. I strongly believe that each person who is eligible to vote, and willing to participate in the democratic processes of our government—should have the right to have their vote counted. The voting equipment and the voting requirements should also be standardized. The government bodies which are charged with deciding the final election results should be non-partisan—especially not allowed to influence an election in favor of a relative or close family friend, as may have been the case in Florida.

ed: A voter should have the same rights from one state to another. While jurisdiction of state and local voting legalities should be settled at the state and local levels, the rights that voters have should be set at a federal level, so that a voter that moves from one state to another knows what to expect.

Err Towards Voter Empowerment

The laws and the government bodies in charge of deciding elections should also be forced to err on the side of the voter, not on the side of any candidate or any for any other arbitrary decision. It can not be considered a fair and free election, unless every vote is counted, and each legitimate voter is given a fair chance to vote. Oversight of the entire vote collection and counting process must be open to international inspectors, much in the same way we expect elections in foreign countries to be open to our inspection.

ed: I don’t believe this was the case in Florida, in either 2000 or 2004. It was also questionable whether the governments erred towards empowering voters in Ohio, in 2004, where the exit polls did not tally with the actual voting results. If the United States can use exit polls as a judge of whether elections are fair and free in other countries, that same standard should apply to the elections within our borders.

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