The Ideal Voting Machine?

by on October 19, 2006 · 24 comments

Wired has an article presenting David Wagner and Ed Felten’s recommendations for more secure voting machines. Their specific proposals–voter-verified paper trails; simpler, publicly available source code; ditch removable memory cards–all sound sensible to me. But I think it’s striking that in summary, what they advocate is transforming voting machines into glorified printers:

Touch-screens are easy to use and are flexible enough to accommodate disabled voters and multiple languages. Optical-scan devices provide reliable paper trails.

We recommend a third alternative that combines the best attributes of both–a ballot marking machine, such as one made by Election Systems and Software.

These devices let voters make their choices on a touch-screen. But instead of directly recording the votes digitally onto a memory card, the machine prints the votes onto a full-size paper ballot. Voters or election officials then place the completed ballots onto an optical-scan reader (.pdf), where the votes are recorded digitally.

I suppose this would marginally reduce the error rate by ensuring that all paper ballots are marked clearly. But on the other hand, more complexity means more potential for failure. Printers jam, software has bugs, power cords get tripped over, etc. And even if the machines work flawlessly, it’s not clear to me that it would be worth spending millions of dollars just to save voters the trouble of marking their own ballots.

Update: Felten points out that these are Wired‘s recommendations after talking with Wagner and Felten, and so not all of the recommendations reflect Wagner or Felten’s personal views. My mistake.

  • http://www.freedom-to-tinker.com Ed Felten

    A small correction: the article gives Wired’s voting-machine recommendations, arrived at after talking to Dave Wagner and me. Don’t assume that Dave and I both agree with every last thing in the article.

  • http://benfulton.net/blog Ben Fulton

    I don’t see much point in making the paper human-readable. Surely converting the ballot into a bar code or similar would do the trick, save paper, and be confirmable by an independently created and built scanner.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Ben: The point of having the barcodes be human-readable is so the voter can verify that the vote was recorded correctly. Otherwise, if the voting machine was compromised, there would be no way for the voter to detect the problem.

  • http://www.freedom-to-tinker.com Ed Felten

    A small correction: the article gives Wired’s voting-machine recommendations, arrived at after talking to Dave Wagner and me. Don’t assume that Dave and I both agree with every last thing in the article.

  • http://benfulton.net/blog Ben Fulton

    I don’t see much point in making the paper human-readable. Surely converting the ballot into a bar code or similar would do the trick, save paper, and be confirmable by an independently created and built scanner.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Ben: The point of having the barcodes be human-readable is so the voter can verify that the vote was recorded correctly. Otherwise, if the voting machine was compromised, there would be no way for the voter to detect the problem.

  • Walter E. Wallis

    Anyone wanna bet a ballot scanner can’t be fixed?
    Remember the way different precincts change the order of names on ballots so no one gets first place advantage everywhere? The counter has to acknowledge the type of ballot, and with just a bit of clever programming…

    Or you can just write down wrong totals. Vote stealing may well have been the third oldest profession. Get over it, and use checksums, independendant validations and all the other means used throught the ages to make cheating harder.

  • Walter E. Wallis

    Anyone wanna bet a ballot scanner can’t be fixed?
    Remember the way different precincts change the order of names on ballots so no one gets first place advantage everywhere? The counter has to acknowledge the type of ballot, and with just a bit of clever programming…

    Or you can just write down wrong totals. Vote stealing may well have been the third oldest profession. Get over it, and use checksums, independendant validations and all the other means used throught the ages to make cheating harder.

  • Bill G

    One of the very few things the city of San Francisco seems to do effectively is handle the voting process.

    Everyone gets a very human readable paper ballot that you mark by joining the head and tail of an arrow pointing at the candidate’s name.

    The ballots are electronically tabulated in machines and the paper ballots saved for recounting.

    No lines at voting machines, everyone has their own ballot that they can mark in their own time anywhere they want too.

    So simple, so seemingly attractive, yet not so used. Very surprising to me.

  • Bill G

    One of the very few things the city of San Francisco seems to do effectively is handle the voting process.

    Everyone gets a very human readable paper ballot that you mark by joining the head and tail of an arrow pointing at the candidate’s name.

    The ballots are electronically tabulated in machines and the paper ballots saved for recounting.

    No lines at voting machines, everyone has their own ballot that they can mark in their own time anywhere they want too.

    So simple, so seemingly attractive, yet not so used. Very surprising to me.

  • http://abstractfactory.blogspot.com/ Cog

    Two important reasons to use computerized ballot-marking machines are user interface and accessibility.

    (1) You can do automated consistency checking, so that e.g. voters cannot mark more than one candidate for a given office.

    (2) Disabled (blind, etc.) users can mark their ballots secretly using audio or other assistive interfaces. Currently many disabled voters rely on human assistance or special ballots, both of which can compromise ballot secrecy.

    These may not overcome the cost or security objections completely, but they should not be ignored.

  • http://abstractfactory.blogspot.com/ Cog

    Two important reasons to use computerized ballot-marking machines are user interface and accessibility.

    (1) You can do automated consistency checking, so that e.g. voters cannot mark more than one candidate for a given office.

    (2) Disabled (blind, etc.) users can mark their ballots secretly using audio or other assistive interfaces. Currently many disabled voters rely on human assistance or special ballots, both of which can compromise ballot secrecy.

    These may not overcome the cost or security objections completely, but they should not be ignored.

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