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I just finished voting in CA’s primary — whew! 47 contests, 76 candidates total, and for on-paper voters, 4 sheets! But today, instead of hand-marking a ballot (my preference explained in an earlier posting), I used a DRE. This voting machine is part of the voting system that San Mateo County purchased from Hart Systems, the smallest of the 3 remaining vendors with a significant share of the U.S. voting systems market.

Comparing with people voting on paper or turning in vote-by-mail packets at the polling place, I had to ask myself the question: where’s my ballot? The answer is in two parts.

As a techie, part of my answer is that an electronic version of my ballot is stored as bits on magnetic storage inside one of the computers in the polling place. It may or may not be not be a “ballot” per se (a distinct collection of selections in the contests), but rather just votes recorded as parts of vote total, analogous to the odometers on the old lever machines. As jaded techie, this strikes me as not the most reliable way to store my ballot.

However, as an observant voter, I can also see that my ballot is also represented by the “paper trail” on the voting machine. As an informed voter (a trained poll worker who also talks to local election officials), I know that this paper is used by election officials as part of auditing the correct operation of the computers, by manually tabulating vote totals for a handful of randomly selected precincts — an extremely important part of the election process here. However, as a jaded observant voter, the cheap paper roll (like a gas station receipt printer) strikes me as not a very durable way of recording the ballot information that I could have put on nice solid real paper ballots.

But leaving aside questions of paper stock, the combination of the two ballot recording methods is pretty good, and the audit process is great! Though I have to say: my thanks and condolences go to the hard working San Mateo County elections staff who wield scissors to cut the paper rolls into individual ballot-oid papers to be hand-tabulated in the audit.

So, as a paper ballot fan, I left reasonably satisfied, though glad of the ability to vote on paper in November. It’s a bit of a conceptual leap to go from a tangible paper ballot in a locked ballot box, to the above non-short answer to “Where’s my ballot?” But it’s a leap that I think many voters can be satisfied with, or would be if the paper trial items actually looked like ballots (as in the system we’re building at TrustTheVote). But it got me thinking about some of the overseas-voter Internet voting pilots I’ve been reading about. That’s enough for today, but a good question for another day, about Internet voting, is the same question, “Where’s my ballot?” More soon …

– EJS

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3 Responses to “Dude, Where’s My Ballot?”

  1. Sorry, but I view likely the same system in an entirely different way. Orange County, California also uses a Hart system with an attached printer. To me, the rolls of printed paper prove nothing. There is nothing special about words printed on paper. It would not take a genius to print another strip of paper, with different information.

    As a voter, do I have any way of knowing if my votes were counted? I do not, as the voting process lacks any sort of end-to-end check. To the voter, the vote collection and counting process is entirely opaque. Likely very few voters are anything close to certain their votes are always correctly counted (and this is a rationale response to an opaque process).

    Curiously, one of the most secure voting systems is the most simple.
    … Gather all voters into a single room.
    … Place all ballots in a ballot box, in plain view.
    … Unseal and count the votes in plain view of all voters.
    Clearly this is not easily scalable to millions of voters – but the point is you can trust the voting process, even if you do not trust those who handle and count the votes.

    The voting process can be less transparent, when you know and trust those who process the votes. This too is not scalable to millions of voters. Trust is required in our present voting system, and trust is not present.

    Take a page from network design. When you cannot trust the network, you need some check on errors. Early networks has some over-elaborate designs (remember ISO OSI?), but in the end we came to realize and end-to-end check was critical, and everything else was secondary.

    In large voting processes, voters have on reason to trust the folk involved in the process. If a voter can verify that their votes were counted, trust is not required.

    The end-to-end check is key.

    • E. John Sebes says:

      I respect the way that the paper trial isn’t impressing you! But FYI, the stated purpose of the paper trail (in my county at least) is to be the basis of an audit by hand-counting some statistically significant percentage of the total cast ballots. The purpose there is to detect instances of where the computers’ vote totals don’t match the human interpretation of the pieces of paper. This audit method is applicable both to DREs and machine-counted paper ballots (the machines are just computers producing vote tallies, via a different method than DREs) except that in the latter case the audit is done on real ballots, not these little paper rolls. That might be unimpressive to you as well, in which case hand counts might seem preferable — at least until you consider the scale, trust, and accuracy problems with hand count. It’s a messy business, no matter how you do it! Most election experts I talk to seem to favor hand or machine marked paper ballots, optically scanned, with manual audits done on a sound statistical basis, and with escalation to larger and larger samples in case of variance between human count and machine count.
      – ejs

  2. Roger Greaves says:

    Poll workers, workers at the registrars and secretaries of state tend to be of one particular party.
    We witnessed in the 2000 election in Florida, the endless re-count, that the counters were actively mining for Gore votes. They were caught, numerous times counting a Bush vote as a Gore vote. Every single questionable ballot was counted as Gore.
    In Minnesota, another endless re-count. Every time they re-counted, more Franken votes were “found.” Entire new boxes of ballots magically appeared and those boxes contained twice as many Frankin votes as Coleman votes. Whenever more Frankin votes were needed, voila! a new box of ballets was “found.”
    My paper balot has a numbered reciept, I can’t even audit how that numbered ballot was tabulated. There is nothing fair and honest in our voting process.
    The solution? Machine counted paper ballots. Each box of ballots should be counted twice, once by each party, under observation and any discrepancy resolved before the next batch is counted. A report should be available to the voter as to how his ballot was counted via the serial number. We must be required to vote in person, no mail in ballots. We must be required to show ID to register and to vote. I kind of like the finger dipped in ink process too. In fact, our thumb print should be on the ballot. That way, we can establish that the correct person voted that ballot.
    Any fraud found on the part of voters or vote counters should be punished by a 20 year prison sentance. A few fools in the lockup would deter the others.

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