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Electronic Voting Follies Continue

The District of Columbia has witnessed yet another triumph of electronic voting this week, when a computer malfunction inflated records of write-in votes in the city's Tuesday primary elections by insane amounts:

D.C. election officials blamed a defective computer memory cartridge yesterday for producing what appeared to be thousands of write-in votes that officials say did not exist.... For example, in the Republican at-large race, 1,560 write-ins at 9:50 p.m. dwindled to 18 by 12:16 a.m. The problem also added thousands of votes to individual candidates, inflating vote totals. At 9:50 p.m. 8,246 ballots were recorded cast in the at-large Republican primary, but that shrank to 3,735 by 12:16 a.m.

Hmm. This time around, the malfunction was caught and corrected. But how it happened remains something of a mystery. The firm that supplied D.C.'s voting machines, Sequoia Voting Systems, says that its database and software functioned just fine, so something else must have gone wrong:

Instead, the company pointed to possible static discharge or other scenarios, including the possibility of human error.

Could be. But that's what concerns me. A voting system should not be susceptible to math errors this large because of minor goofs like, say, somebody dragging their feet on the carpet and picking up too much static that zaps a memory card when they pick it up.

To recycle a concept I've used before, the problem isn't that electronic voting systems can fail--it's that they can fail badly.The efficiency of computers can make any mistake widespread and, at worst, undetectable--Florida voters can only guess if an e-voting malfunction might explain why 18,000 people had no votes recorded in a 2006 congressional election who did cast votes in other races.

Ohio voters were luckier--local election officials noticed a bug that would have lost votes in the March primary vote.

Fortunately, the e-voting fad seems to have passed, as states move to scrap their electronic voting systems and return to paper-based systems that provide a final record that can't be instantly modified or erased by a programming error. But it will take years to retire all the e-voting machines states and counties have purchased at vast expense. I, for instance, will apparently be using the same "WinVote" terminals this year that I've used since 2004.

How about you? Do you have any anxiety about your vote getting lost--or, perhaps more realistically, the system acting like any other computer and crashing in some unexpected manner, causing you to wait even longer to cast your ballot?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  September 12, 2008; 3:24 PM ET
Categories:  Digital culture , Gripes  
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I think the problem is the quality of these voting machines. How complicated is counting votes? Is it more complicated than other domains where computers rule? If computers can keep a plane in the air, why can't they count votes? Now add a little bit of paper-based audit trail and e-voting could become a reality.

Posted by: Bart | September 12, 2008 4:00 PM | Report abuse

I am all for technology wherever it is appropriate. However, some things MUST remain primitive and traditional (i.e. voting). It would be much more difficult to corrupt and create a conspiracy with thousands of volunteers that work the poll stations than it is to corrupt a machine. I do not trust these companies that were financed by funding provided by lobbied politicians. It's time we take back our "voting system," and keep it a community based system with volunteers. This is an area where technology on this level should NEVER be allowed. Also, off the topic I think all citizens should be required to vote when they are of age, as it is in most South American countries.

Posted by: Ian Caldon | September 12, 2008 5:10 PM | Report abuse

i think there is no future for e-voting. people are easily drawn to corrupt tools to help attain their political power.its human nature,a great president once quoted"altimate power corrupts altimately".

Posted by: andrew boyle | September 12, 2008 8:31 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Pegoraro, you call yourself a journalist? It would take very little investigation to find out that the memory cards, the voting machines and the software they use are not only able to be recalculated after the fact but are absolutely pre-programable. They are able to be programed for a pre determined amount of votes or to switch votes proportionately to give an opponent victory by his or her margin of loss. These machine's have been used to steal elections, it is known, and it is provable. Watch "Stealing America, Vote by Vote" or go to Black Box voting dot com. The main stream media completely ignores it and the politicians absolutely do not mention it, whether the victim or beneficiary, lest they cause complete chaos among the American people. If they prove only one illegitimate outcome it calls into question the validity of the entire system. Election fraud is a long standing tradition in this country there is no denying that, but the ability of these machines to do it with such ease and efficiency brings into question the very fundamentals of our democracy.
If every person were allowed their vote and given every opportunity to vote, the elite of this nation would never be able to maintain their power, they know that, and that is the reason for the insanity that is our election system.

Posted by: average joe | September 12, 2008 8:43 PM | Report abuse

As a former programmer and a longtime political operative, I would say mixing computers with elections is a recipe for stolen elections, period, unless you RIGOROUSLY audit not just the paper trail, but the paper's trail of possession to ensure the receipts you count are the ones voters actually cast.

Posted by: Lisa in Los Angeles | September 12, 2008 11:41 PM | Report abuse

Which reminds me of that quote, famously - if not necessarily accurately - attributed to Stalin : «It's not who votes that counts, but who counts the votes» - as demonstrated, e g, in the US presidential elections of 2000 and 2004....


Posted by: mhenriday | September 13, 2008 4:35 PM | Report abuse

To Average Joe who writes "These machine's (sic)have been used to steal elections, it is known, and it is provable." Vote fraud is a crime. If you, or anyone else, has actual evidence of vote fraud take it to law enforcement and have the perpetrators prosecuted. I'm sorry, but simply showing them a video is not enough to successfully prosecute vote fraud. Show your evidence and take them to court.

Posted by: bobby | September 13, 2008 8:19 PM | Report abuse

Bobby, I think you ask too much, because if it could be proven, say in Ohio, that election fraud cost Gore the election to the Presidency, it would have been proven.

The fact that bags of trash were found to contain records that should have been saved rather than trashed is about the only proof anyone was left with.

It is true, what Stalin said; it's who counts the votes. We need to get rid of the machines and go back to perhaps a slower count, but one that cannot so easily and seamlessly be made fraudulent.

Posted by: Concerned | September 14, 2008 8:15 PM | Report abuse

Yup, electronic machines (Arlington has used them for a few years now) make me nervous. I'm not suggesting that the companies have insidious motives. I'm just saying that for something this widespread, there are just too many ways for something to be corrupted either on purpose or accidentally. And there's no way to effectively audit.

I don't think electronic voting should be saved either. The cost in time and money that would be necessary to ensure 99.9% accuracy in the results of e-voting would easily outweigh any efficiency savings over the traditional paper system.

Posted by: Ugh | September 15, 2008 2:15 AM | Report abuse

In the spirit of an electoral process run by volunteers, I think any e-voting system should be an open source project developed by the community (such projects already exist, the govt would just have to pick one). Then, the federal government just hires at least two independent contracting companies to audit and test regular releases of the software the project creates. Anybody who understands programming can look at the source code and verify the system is secure, and you can bet that lots of independent security researchers will be contributing to this without costing taxpayers a cent. A paper trail will be added by the project if they determine that there's no other way to keep the data verifiable (I suspect there are other options though). The states can then choose any vendor that can supply e-voting machines built around these approved releases.

There would also have to be a full lifecycle management process built in to handle bugfixes and maintenance releases, but that's just elementary software development.

The biggest trick is how to legally justify the federal government's involvement since the states have lots of freedom in how they run elections. The feds' intent here, though, is to ensure election accuracy so they might be able to do it (but IANAL).

Posted by: BR | September 15, 2008 9:54 AM | Report abuse

There are e-voting machines and there are e-voting machines. Not all are created equal. Sequoia is one of those manufacturers which has experienced problems along with Diebold. The E-vote made by Hart Intercivic used widely in Texas and elsewhere is simple and reliable. There is one other big variable: The dilligence of the people in charge of the election. All of these machines must be maintained, checked and rechecked to ensure their accuracy. Going back to paper ballots doesn't make any sense at all in this age when there are more efficient and safe alternatives available.

Posted by: Jim in Austin, TX | September 15, 2008 10:33 AM | Report abuse

....We are all at fault here....we want instant results...we want to go to bed early knowing who won. We could easily go back to paper ballots that are the safest way to vote, but that will not give us a result by midnight on election night. We could also make voting a 30 day paper mail in ballot for absolute security....but it "ain't" going to happen. I believe some of these computer errors are human created mischief, and some are computer flukes.

Posted by: dribensnow | September 15, 2008 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Actually, Andrew Boyle, the phrase you attempted to quote was not from a "great president," rather it was in a letter from Lord Acton to a Bishop in 1887.

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Posted by: PJ | September 15, 2008 11:04 AM | Report abuse

This is an excellent article on a critical subject that I think needs much more attention from everyone, including the press. Does anyone seriously believe enough is being done to make sure our election process is full and fair? We just can't afford another election where the results can't be trusted.

Posted by: G.G. | September 15, 2008 11:07 AM | Report abuse

Instant gratification is the main reason for the problem. People simply do not want to wait for votes to be counted manually. I'd be willing to wait a week or more to get the real results. Let's not let another election be stolen!

Posted by: Jaboz | September 15, 2008 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Seems to be a lot of showboating here by uninformed but very opinionated conspiracy theorists.

Yes, there are problems with e-voting, but the paper vote is not without its own issues. Elections can be stolen from paper ballots just as they can be fixed from weak technology. There will ALWAYS be risks, no matter the medium. Everyone loves to point to the security of the paper trail, but has anyone ever thought about *storage* for all this paper? Not only would vast amounts of climate-controlled warehouse space be required, but round-the-clock security would also be necessary. The cost to taxpayers would be enormous. The technology in this area is good -- not perfect, but good, and I think reverting back to paper based on paranoia alone is a mistake. My friends at my state's Board of Elections tell me that paper voting is also riddled with problems and that e-voting is a cost-effective way to eliminate the need for the paper trail. And remember -- eventually, we'll have to do destroy paper trails for sheer lack of spece, but digital records can remain forever. With inevitable improvements to e-voting, this can become a fantastic tool for democracy.

Posted by: cbr | September 15, 2008 1:53 PM | Report abuse

After at least two elections stolen by alleged voting machine failure, I doubt that, even though they are not used any longer, the damage is done.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 15, 2008 7:42 PM | Report abuse

Is something else at play here? For all the complaints about the 2000 election being stolen, Florida used paper ballots (remember the hanging chads?). Could it be that the electronic systems are just producing more of a trail than the old system, it is just that the trail is electronic and therefore scary to uneducated?

Computers are more than capable of doing this safely, efficiently and cheaply. We just need to get over this fear of technology.

Posted by: Mark | September 16, 2008 3:22 PM | Report abuse

You bet. I figured that anyone with a little training and an real urge could manipulate the votes in these third rate efforts to build voting machines. However, that is just one side of the problem, as you have so aptly illustrated in your article. The nonmalicious gremlins abound mostly because the companies involved seem to believe in the new China syndrome which is to build it cheap and to sell it high. So, that's what we got cheap junk at a high price. This is not to let the government officials off the hook, they were down right stupid in their dealings with these companies. No guarantees as to the reliability of the machines or maybe the reliability was there, but it was engineered to have these problems but less obvious.

Posted by: Casper | September 16, 2008 5:28 PM | Report abuse

In SC we use a stand-along machine for voting. It has no ability to communicate with other machines or accept any input after the ballots are loaded until each voter casts their ballot. Results are stored internal to the machine and can not be changed, added to, etc.
A zero tape is printed when the polls open and a total votes tape is printed at the close of the polls. In a state where we had a tradition of stuffing ballot boxes, I have more faith in the voting machine than in paper ballots.
As for having a paper trail, a true paper trail would have to show what or who you voted for. Think I prefer a secret electronic ballot.

Posted by: Owens | September 16, 2008 7:20 PM | Report abuse

Most all of DC's voting is done on paper. You fill out a ballot with a pencil and you insert the ballot into a machine which counts the votes. At least DC still has the ballots if they need to be hand counted. You don't get that with a touch-screen voting system.

Posted by: inlogan | September 17, 2008 11:01 AM | Report abuse

It is true that voting can be done fairly, and efficiently with computers. This is certainly the way to go. But, at the same time, we need a paper trail.

There are two problems with voting in general, though. Voting anywhere really does have a long history of corruption. And the real debate is never about what's right or fair. It's about what's better for each party to the debate.

I do think it would be a good idea to assign a bipartisan panel to create some voting rules. I'd like to see a system where I can vote electronically, and can watch a printout/receipt/card drop into a tray where I can physically see my vote recorded properly on paper. It would be a bonus to actually receive a receipt with a record of my vote. I ought to be able to view, but not modify, my vote online for verification. That way, we have the benefits of quick e-voting, the benefits of the paper trail for recounts, and the benefit of the voter verifying that his/her vote was recorded properly.

Posted by: Mike | September 17, 2008 11:01 PM | Report abuse

We vote on paper ballots. The voter inserts the completed ballot into an optical scanner, and the paper ballot is preserved. That's the way that things should be done; a tried-and-true technology with a paper backup.

Posted by: JohnJ | September 18, 2008 10:42 AM | Report abuse

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