Florida has installed new Electronic Voting terminals in place of the old punch card style ballots.

I used the punch card style ballot in the 2000 Presidential Election. Who knew that my vote for Ralph Nader was one of the 537 that put Bush over the top? Had I voted for a candidate that might win, or thought about the consequences of my vote, that might have been reduced by one to 536.

Voting for that election was simple. I was living in a rather minority-laden district (mostly Spanish and African-American) of Broward County, Florida (Oakland Park to be exact), and if a Republican did happen to show up, I'm sure he/she would have been summarily dismissed, and given a swift kick in the groin. I went in, gave my ID and voter card to the person who directed me to the appropriate table who (after much searching) managed to find me in the Non-Partisan book, as I'm registered as a Libertarian. I received a blank ballot, and I proceeded to the machine.

Instructions were simple. You inserted the ballot till it hit the stop. You picked up this oddly shaped device which was attached to the machine with a fine chain. It was called a stylus, but it was shaped more like a mostly eaten carrot with a metal rod at the end. The purpose of the stylus was to insert into the appropriate hole and punch out the chad, of the person you intended to vote for. The candidates were arranged thusly:

Gore------------------- |_|
Bush------------------- |_|
Nader------------------ |_|
Whoever else----------- |_|

There were no "butterfly ballots" in Broward County. Those were all in Palm Beach County. Most of the controversy in this county was from Blacks and Hispanics being turned away, and told the ballots were closed. I have yet to meet a person in Broward County who was actually turned away in that election. Also the issue of "hanging chads" or "pregnant chads" and the "two-corner rule" were big here. It's all the old people. Too feeble to push hard enough to clear a piece of cardboard.....

Moving on to the more recent past.
I recently voted in the 2004 Primary/Local Elections in my town. I've moved around a bit, and this time I get to vote in "Margate, FL". My girlfriend and I went together, I presented my ID and voter registration card and was directed to the appropriate table. My girlfriend, being registered at the same address, by all reasonable logic, should have also been routed to my table. She was not. After much searching, they again found me in the Non-Partisan book. I was given a minute long training session in how to use the machine.
  • Make sure you vote in every election.
  • Make sure your votes are correct.
  • Here is what a vote looks like. (A checked box vs. an unchecked box)
  • Make sure you vote in every election, if you miss one your whole ballot might be thrown out. (hmmmmmm just because I choose not to vote for parks commissioner I might have my presidential selection invalidated?)
  • Make sure you press the "Vote" button at the end.
  • Here is the stylus...(It looked suspiciously like the half-eaten carrot device I was familiar with, except it didn't have a metal rod.)
By this time my frustrated girlfriend realized that she was directed to the wrong table, and now arrived at my table. Now she was looking through the book and had to point out her name to the obviously un-search friendly, elderly woman running the show. "I can't believe he put me at the wrong table", she exclaimed as I went to my machine.

The attendant had to go find the Non-Partisan "cartridge". She came back a minute later with an oddly shaped black plastic device that looked like it should plug into something, rather like a SNES cartridge but with more curves. It had no markings, but there must have been to avoid getting them mixed up. (Riiiiiight). She plugged the cartridge in my machine, verified, and off I went.

I went to the voting booth, and it was nothing like I remembered. I was only presented with a plain white screen tabletPC-like device. It was the size of a thick large book, such as you might expect to find on a coffee table somewhere. Upon it was written the local race I was eligible to vote in (Mayor, Vice-Mayor, a couple commissioners, etc) and the candidates names with an obvious check box next to them. When you pressed the stylus to the box you wanted, it would put an X in the box. If you did it again, the check disappeared. You could not put 2 checks in for the same race. The machine warned you if you didn't vote in a race. You can continue without voting for that race but you must confirm.

Heeding the warning given earlier, I voted in every race, verified my vote was correct, then hit next at the bottom. It presented my choices back to me in a clear concise report, with the "Vote" button (a separate button on the top case of the tablet) blinking red. I pressed it, and I was done.

My girlfriend had a similar experience, except since she is a registered Democrat, she was given the Democratic primary race as well as the local race.

We left with an odd feeling of nothing about us. I worried for a second what would happen if the link to whatever network they implement went down. I worried what happens if the tablet locked up after I pressed Vote. There didn't seem to be much to those tablets, but still. I don't believe they were running any Windows variant, so at least my vote wouldn't be BSOD'd into the bit-bucket.

There was a feeling of satisfaction with the old punch card method. You finished it, you handed it to the guy who was supposed to make sure there were no hanging or pregnant chads, and you put it in the box! Here I just touched a screen with something that resembled the snot-sucker they use on babies. No record of anything. Nothing physical.

I was let down.

There are always going to be problems with computers. Should we really trust these devices to something as important and unrepeatable as an election? I know we trust them with saving lives, and counting money, and even landing airplanes. An election is something different altogether. So far paper has worked fine. In the one case it was very very close, it failed us. Should we be so quick as to move to an electronic form? What if the database becomes corrupted? What if it's close again and the state demands a recount? How are we going to physically verify a vote? Short answer is "We Can't". Long answer... Well the machine can give you the same answer it did before...

Recounts are necessary because we are human and we might have missed a ballot or two got stuck together, or some old fogey didn't press hard enough and got a hanging chad. A computer doesn't know if its broken. It doesn't know if its own screen is miscalibrated and everyone who voted for Kerry, really voted for Bush. It simply doesn't have the human capacity to know that precinct 247 is shy about a thousand votes, and they'll be found tomorrow because the new guy didn't turn his box in. A computer won't be able to give a recount, just the same answer again. Is that enough? Should we also demand an audit trail of some type, like a paper receipt with some code that everybody can lose?

Here is my grand plan for it all:

Florida Election officials don't need to reinvent the wheel. The electronic voting machines shouldn't handle the counting exclusively, only an interface which then prints out a ballot you put in the box. That way we can be sure. Provided everybody does there job, the manual recount can easily be handled. Now there's just the question of paper and ink for the machines.... (runs screaming from the blank ballot that printed from the out of ink machine.)

There was some controversy in The Netherlands in early October 2006 about electronic voting. A group has gotten hold of a voting machine, discovered that the physical and software security therein is very weak, and otherwise established the possibility that determined individuals could significantly impact election results through electronic tinkering.

The advantages of electronic voting are fairly numerous. Firstly, it could be made to happen more quickly. This may advantage the media more than anyone else, but it may as well be listed. Secondly, electronic devices could be made easier to use for people with physical disabilities and the like. Another advantage the system should have is increasing standardization between voting districts. Skullduggery involving dated or problematic machines in districts likely to vote in a certain way has been noted in a number of recent elections. Also, having an electronic record in addition to a paper one could allow for cross-verification in disputed districts. In cases where the results very starkly do not match, it should be possible to repeat the vote, with greater scrutiny.

The answer to the whole issue is exceptionally simple:

1. You are presented with a screen where you select from among clearly labeled candidates, with an option to write in a name if that is part of your electoral system.

2. The vote is then registered electronically, by whatever means, and a piece of paper is printed with the person’s choice of candidate, ideally in large bold letters.

3. For an election involving multiple choices, each is likewise spelled out clearly. For instance, “I vote NO on Proposition X (flags for orphans).”

4. The voter then checks the slip to make sure it is correct, before dropping it in a ballot box.

5. These are treated in the standard fashion: locked, tracked, and observed before counting.

6. The votes are tallied electronically, with a decent proportion (say, 20%) automatically verified by hand.

7. If there is any serious discrepancy between the paper and electronic votes, all the paper ballots should be counted. Likewise, if there is a court ordered recount on the basis of other allegations of electoral irregularity.

Electronic systems have vulnerabilities including hacked polling stations; transmission interception and modification; as well as server side attacks where the data is being amalgamated. Paper systems have vulnerabilities relating to physical tampering. Maintaining both systems, as independently as possible, helps to mitigate the risks of each separately and improve the credibility of the process. It is like having both your bank and your credit card company keep separate records of your transactions. If they do not match, you have a good leg to stand on when alleging some kind of wrongdoing.

This system could use relatively simple electronic machines, and may therefore actually cost less in the long run than all paper balloting. Critically, it would maintain an unambiguous paper trail for the verification of people’s voting intentions. Companies that deny the importance of such a trail are either not thinking seriously about the integrity of the voting process or have self interested reasons for holding such a position.

This node is also a post on my blog, at: http://www.sindark.com/2006/10/07/on-electronic-voting/

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