08 August 2006

Voting In Denver

In today's election in Denver, the method is the message. Before today, an election meant to a trip to your neighborhood precinct voting location, in my case Steele Elementary School, to vote with your neighbors. Today, the City and County has 47 voting centers (far fewer than the previous number of precincts), but you can go to any of them to vote.

I went to the nearest one, the Washington Park Recreation Center, having been twarted in my effort to early vote at the District 3 Police Station by a confusing notice from the election commission which led me to believe that that location was open sooner than it actually did.

The most notable part was no the matter which makes vote centers novel. There were a few more electronic voting machines at my locations, and they now came in two different styles, but I was more struck by the need to present ID and have it written down on a voter card. This was taken in turn to an official (one of several) who looked up the proper form of ballot for my precinct, wrote it on a slip of paper with no identifying information and sent me to a voting machine. Everyone present when I was there had a driver's license to present, so I didn't get to see what would have happened if someone has presented an alternate form of ID or forget to bring any ID.

The process of voting itself (I used an old style machine) was straight forward. The only difference from previous occasions was that the official entered a code for my ballot style into the machine before I went to vote. Lights lit up under the tet of races and issues where I was allowed to vote. The candidate part was trivial, as I had no choices. The sole ballot issue, Denver Referendum 1A on the Xcel Energy Franchise, took greater effort before hand, to make up my mind, but it took only a moment to press the button. The Republican side of the ballot (unlit in my case) was remarkable for how many races had no candidate in them. This must be depressing for them.

A told a neighbor who is unaffiliated that there was an election she could vote in today, which surprised her, because she thought that only people affliated with political parties could vote today --- one more reason that the timing of Referendum 1A was really not appropriate. Save ballot issues for races where people actually show up please.

Pros and Cons of Voting Machines

There are plenty of people who distrust electronic voting machines and the potential for abuse certainly exists, but I don't stay up nights worrying. Every system has tradeoffs. In the existing system it is impossible to "overvote" (i.e. vote for too many candidates in one race, or vote both yes and no on the same issue), a serious concern in paper ballots, punch card ballots and optically scanned ballots. Tallying errors by election officials are also eliminated, and there are no ambiguous votes for which a voter's intent needs to be determined; both of these are concerns with paper ballots, and to a letter extent with optically scanned and punch card ballots. They layout is also reasonably clear, certainly better than many optically scanned votes that I have cast and better than almost all punch card ballots that I have cast.

It is possible to "undervote", by pressing the "cast vote" button (or having a kid in the voting booth with you do so) prior to entering a choice in every race, and it doesn't appear that the machine I used gives you a warning that you have accidentally done so. It is probably a greater risk in this system than many, although not a huge relative risk.

Of course, none of those issues are the ones that electronic voting machine critics are most afraid of. They are concerned about intentional or negligent software glitches that cook the results.

But, there are checks on this concern. Physical control of the voting machines and the presence of multiple elections officials at all times that voting machines are dealt with after they have been programmed for the election, virtually eliminates the chance of monkey business from outside interlopers or low level election officials. The voting machines are not networked, so they are essentially hacker proof once they are deployed. At the end of the day, a paper recipt prints the results from that machine and this is the basis for the tally reported to election commission headquarters. It would be easier to get a few election officials at a particular vote center to doctor those receipts than it would be to change the programming of the machines.

The vendor could make software which has intentional biases in it. Given the clear political affiliations of some of the companies that do so this is a concern. But, because the ballots aren't (and can't be) customized to a particular election when the basic software for the machines is written, any such bias would have to be more or less random.

The programmer who customizes the software for Denver could be a source of fraud, and indeed, this person is in a better position than anyone else in the process to tinker with the system, but to do so would require the programmer to go beyond the interface in the software that allows the particular ballot to be entered, which requires a particularly bold and malicious act, which would also have to be sufficiently subtle in impact that it wouldn't be a case of obvious voter fraud. If every vote cast automatically comes up in favor of the programmer's favorite candidate, the fraud will be caught.

It would also be quite a bit easier to through fraudulent voter registration applications, or by hacking the voter registration database, to allow unauthorized people to vote, but, while this is easier with vote centers, since the staff won't recognize someone who votes once at one vote center and again at some other vote center, in practice this rarely happens. We know this from historical experience. Why? The magnitude of the conspiracy necessary to accomplish this result is more work than simply honestly convincing your supporters to get out to vote. The decision of the General Assembly to make knowingly casting a fraudulent vote a felony in Colorado further increases the risk of participating in that kind of scheme.

Is fraud impossible? No. But, it takes sophisticated, highly motivated, relatively high level bad actors who are insiders not of the vendor, but of the local election administration bureaucracy, to make that happen. And, people in those positions have been able to commit voting fraud long before the electronic voting machine came along. At some point, ultimately, you have to have faith that the officials involves will do their jobs, or get caught not doing so. I still have faith that this is the case, even with electronic voting machines.