Paper Ballots Don’t Crash

by on October 31, 2006 · 0 comments

Yesterday Ed Felten linked to a Washington Post story about Diebold’s hush-hush recall of 4700 AccuVote-TS voting machines last year. Apparently they had motherboard defects that caused some of them to randomly crash. As Felten explains today, the machines tended to crash at the most inconvenient time possible. He quotes a report on Maryland’s 2004 election:

Election judges and technical staff reported that many of these units froze when the voter pressed the Cast Ballot button. This leads to great confusion for judges and voters. The voter leaves the polling place with little or no confidence that their vote was counted. In many cases, the election judges are unable to provide substantial confirmation that the vote was, in fact, counted.

As Felten explains, this is bad news:

You’d be hard pressed to pick a worse time for a voting machine to crash. The voter has made his selections, confirmed them on the ballot review screen, and now wants them to be recorded. When the Cast Vote button is pressed, the machine reads the intended votes out of its temporary RAM memory and copies them into the official ballot record file, which lives in the machine’s flash memory. If the machine crashes just before the vote is copied, the vote is lost. If it crashes just after the vote is copied, the vote is recorded. It won’t be immediately obvious which case you’re in–hence the confused voters and poll workers.

Obviously, every voting system has problems. But the nice thing about paper ballots is that it’s almost always possible to recover from equipment malfunctions. If there’s doubts about whether an optical-scan or punch-card machine is counting votes correctly, you can run the ballots through another machine or count the votes by hand. Recovering votes from a malfunctioning e-voting machine requires computer forensics skills, and even then it’s a dicey proposition.

Felten’s post makes some other good points about the frightening implications of this kind of bug. Go read the whole thing.

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