Verifiable Elections

Verified voting is just one step to verifiable elections.

October 11, 2006

The USA is currently re-examining its system of voting. The main focus is the federal government's Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which mandates a switch to more uniform election equipment, more reliable equipment, and equipment that allows more people with disabilities to vote privately, i.e., without assistance. The big debate on complying with the Act is on which of two general types of voting systems is best: voting via electronic voting machines--named by their manufacturers as Direct Recording Equipment (DREs)--or voting via paper ballots and using a simple optical scanner to verify the correctness of a ballot and to count ballots.

There is broad consensus among computer researchers and public interest groups that there is no practical way to secure DREs. The potential for massive election fraud is substantial. The good thing is that we don't need computerized voting systems. Indeed, they don't provide anything paper ballot voting systems don't already provide--and at a lower price.

But a much greater problem in attaining fair and accurate elections is in making the whole election process, the rules and procedures, the way machines are stored, maintained, setup and programmed, the way ballot boxes or the electronic media holding vote data are transported, the handling of mail-in votes, the way votes are aggregated from precinct to county, state, and federal totals, in short, the verifiability of this multi-step process. Each step provides opportunities for malfeasance, and it is within this process, unseen and virtually unknown to voters, that almost all election fraud is committed. Verified voting is just one step to verifiable elections.

Notable Characteristics of the Election Process

Elections are county run. There are over 3000 counties in the U.S. A federal election is really 3000+ separate county elections. It would be fitting if each precinct and county were able to retain authority over its precinct and county vote totals, and independently verify that its totals were properly tallied into state and federal totals.

There are roughly 200,000 voting precincts across the country. Each precinct receives on average of perhaps 500 ballots. Therefore, if ballots were counted by hand, precincts might take an average of, say, a few hours to count their votes. The point is that vote counting is a highly distributed process. 200,000 precincts times 1 dozen workers per precinct means we have a standing army of roughly 2.4 million vote counters and verifiers built into our election system, today.

Electronic vote counting serves to quickly obtain voting results. But it is not necessary. What is the rush in counting votes? Does it really matter if we don't have a result by 11:00pm election night, and must wait until the next day? Do we not already wait a day or days for a final result on many races in any given election cycle?

In fact, slowing down the vote counting may reduce election fraud, because would-be election manipulators won't know until the last minute if their candidate needs their ``help'' in winning the election. For the same reason, the reporting of exit polls should be disallowed.

There is a difference between election fraud and voter fraud. There has been only one prosecuted case of voter fraud (i.e., a voter mispresenting him or herself at a voting station) in the U.S. in the last 10 years. Voter fraud is an impractical and dangerous technique for effectively changing the outcome of an election: it requires recruiting too many people, anyone of whom may be inclined to reveal the conspiracy at some point. There has been much fear mongering on this topic in the media recently. However the money and initiatives to eliminate this non-existent problem have been earmarked for systems and procedures that can be used, in a very targeted way, to hassle and impeded eligible voters from voting.

Absentee voting is shockingly insecure. It should be discouraged until a verifiable means to process such votes is established.

Election commissioners are political appointees. This simple fact alone casts a cloud over their political independence. The county Board of Elections should conduct all activities based on open government principles. All election process procedures should be clearly defined by statute. All other decisions should require the approval of residents. Election Commissioners should not have any significant ``powers''. They should simply be coordinators and facilitators. Election Commissioners should not be political appointees--they could be elected by the public or by a 3/4 majority vote by county, city, and town legislatures, councils, or boards.

Political parties are not government agencies. Political party machineries should have no institutional government or governance role in elections. As there is separation between church and state, so should there be separation between political parties and state. Political parties may canvas the people, but the people should run elections.

A Verifiable Elections proposal

Please consider the following election process outline as a means to dramatically reduce the opportunities for election fraud and to provide the public a means to fully verify election results:

  1. Use paper ballot voting (and optional optical scanner to verify and tally votes quickly), with the paper ballot and hand count as the authoritative voting record.
  2. Provide a means for individuals to cast a provisional ballot when their eligibility to vote is questioned.
  3. Discourage absentee voting until a verifiable means to process absentee ballots is established.
  4. For people with disabilities, provide an optional computerized ballot marking machine that employs audio or other means of interaction to help more of them vote on their own.
  5. Precinct workers should be from the precinct, and their appointment should be subject to the general approval of precinct residents.
  6. Other precinct residents should, if they wish, be able to oversee precinct activity both inside and outside the building, including vote counting.
  7. At the close of voting hours, precinct workers open the ballot boxes at the precinct and begin to count votes together (an overhead projector to display the ballot may be employed to accommodate many people). Other resident may also observe.
  8. After the votes are tallied, the results are entered by hand onto a Web form of the county Board of Elections public website especially designed to collect election tallies and which will display a page of results from each precinct as well as county-wide totals where applicable. Precinct workers and observers should write down their submitted tallies for their own future reference and to verify (and monitor) the published website results.
  9. The county election commissioners then report their county-wide results of state and national races to the state elections website which, designed similarly to the county website, will display each county result of state and national races as well as the state-wide totals where applicable.
  10. The state election commissioners then report their state-wide results of national races to the federal elections website, which, designed similarly to the state and county websites, will display each state's national race results as well as the nation-wide totals where applicable.
The essence of the system is that all precinct and intermediate totals are published online. The individual tallies are verifiable because one dozen or more observers from each precinct can verify the results they personally recorded with the results online. If an online result is incorrect, precinct workers and observers can alert each other and, upon broad consensus of the group, contact the county to correct it. In this way, the precinct workers and observers effectively retain authority over their precinct results.

With the precinct numbers securely verified, any individual may go online and easily tally the precinct totals of a county to verify county-wide totals. It is short work to tally a few hundred precinct totals. And it only takes a tiny fraction of 1% of a county's residents--curious enough to tally their county precincts totals--to verify the county-wide total of a race for the rest of us. Similarly it is short work to tally several dozen county totals of a state in order to verify the state-wide total of a race. And so with the 50 state totals to verify the nation-wide total of a race.

The use of paper ballots eliminates the numerous security loopholes electronic voting machines introduce. And having votes counted at the precinct and posted on the Web eliminates the security loopholes introduced by the transport of ballots or memory cards, the possible malicious code in the central tabulating computer, and the inability of precinct workers and observers to ever verify the voting results of their own precinct.

Because precinct values are completely verified, and the results are published online for the whole public to see and monitor, verification becomes a highly distributed process (each interested citizen need only focus on his or her own county or state race of interest), and full verification of elections results is easily achieved by the public itself.