to conduct a political election. But last week I noticed something very
about what was going on. Obscured by the vapid media reports and the
political posturing is a far bigger problem than just one very
election. It's a technical problem that may have tilted hundreds of
around the world. And it's a problem that the hacker community is in a
position to help fix, if they want to.
I confess to being a political junkie. Although I had a hard
time working up much of a sweat about either of the major party
felt the same guilty thrill watching the election results one gets from
witnessing a car crash. But what engaged my inner geek was the largest
technical problem that affected the election. George Bush campaign
Karen Hughes was right to complain about the selective recounts in
saying," The votes in these four selective
counties are being counted differently than votes in Florida's 63 other
counties." Unfortunately the were also tabulated differently, and the
systems have such a range of error rates that there is almost no way to
objectively settle the issue.
In most of the US, and in many so-called "advanced" nations,
the processes used for tabulating voting results are inconsistent,
discriminatory against elderly and inner city populations and utilize
technology that is downright third world. It?s a hidden scandal that
be hidden any longer.
Over the last hundred years, the right to vote has gone from
the privilege of a few to a basic right; in some countries, a mandatory
responsibility of citizenship. Many countries have agonized over ways
increasing low voting rates. This is largely because differing voting
have led to something less than representative government. Turnout
traditionally skewed election results in favor of more educated, middle
review of the 1994 US congressional elections found that college
were three times more likely to vote than high school drop-outs. Low
rates among less educated, more urban voters is not just an American
phenomenon. In the UK, even after years of agitating for home rule,
the London voters bothered to cast ballots for their Greater London
In local elections, poor
communities like Conisbrough featured voting rates as low as 24%.
While most of us have learned to live with the fact that
many people don?t vote, it?s become far more upsetting to learn just
people lose their right to vote because of primitive voting systems,
disproportionately affect poor and urban districts. It?s downright
to learn that most handicapped people have little recourse to a secret
This is entirely due to the use of old, unreliable voting
In many urban areas and older industrial communities, voters
are faced with ancient mechanical voting stations or have to use
unreliable punch card systems which have tripped up hundreds of
the US and elsewhere.
Many urban areas in the US still
rely on creaky old mechanical tabulators. For example, Philadelphia?s current
machines are between 25 and 50 years old, weigh over 1000 pounds,
built by companies that no longer exist feature parts that can't be
and use a lever system that handicapped and elderly people find
and difficult to use. The rate of breakdown is high. The result is
and long delays during major elections.
New York City has had similar problems. DanielDe Francesco,
Director of the New
York City Board of Elections, has said that in 1998, heavy turnout
"old machines" had a negative affect on totals. Things got so
that on a recent Election Day, 70 repairmen were spread out across the
repairing machines while voters waited. Other equipment problems
antiquated systems hung up elections in Detroit. In ?98, the Michigan
Democratic Party tried unsuccessfully to keep polls open for an
three hours, and some voters were turned away or walked out of polling
places. This year, problems with
equipment led to lines in St. Louis. Political partisans
wrangled about whether to keep polling places open.
Other antique and inherently
flawed systems have spoiled ballots even after they were cast.
The worst of these systems has been
the punch card ballot. Derived from technology used to tabulate the US
of 1890, these system had problems even then, and as the recent snafu
Beach country demonstrated, they haven't improved much.
In 1986, the well respected John and Mary R. Markle Foundation
approached the National Institute of Standards to
learn more about the errors generated by such systems. The 1988 NIST
recommended the elimination of such punch card systems, particularly
"pre-scored" (partially cut) ballot cards, citing inaccurate voting
resulted from their use. A few years earlier the State of Illinois had
their electro-mechanical tabulation systems and found that 28% of them generated tabulation errors.
The consequences of such errors can be severe.
In October of 1995 the voters of
Quebec went to the polls to vote on whether to secede from the rest of
The No?s won by a razor-thin margin of only 1.12% or 52,488 votes.
Unfortunately the there were over 86
thousand "spoiled ballots"
election, nearly half again the margin in the election!
In a recent primary election in
the state of Hawaii, over
9,300 votes were spoiled by bad equipment.
Thousands more had their ballots kicked back or damaged and had to
revote, sometimes several times. In 1998, the spoilage rate was even
high enough to require a state-wide recount, even though most races
In Peruvian elections a few
years back, poorly maintained punch card systems were partially
a ballot spoilage rate of that approached 6 %. The result contributed
an international incident.
The US State Department cited the antique vote counting systems used by
Peruvian officials as one of their many reasons to denounce the
election. "We do not
see the election as being valid... No president
emerging from such a flawed process can claim legitimacy."
In a twenty year-old study, investigators
found that one in twenty Ohioans accidentally invalidated their vote
because they "over-voted" in the gubernatorial election. Voters either
or nicked more than one punch hole, or an extra tab simply fell out on
during the tabulation process. In Cincinnati, attempts by election
clean up bad punch cards with tweezers after the 1985 election caused a
small but memorable
Improperly punched cards are only part of
the problem. Another can be poorly made, imprecise cards. In
Carolina, Duplin County election officials found that the punch card
didn?t align up properly with candidate names so elections director
Futrell sent them back. The second batch was no better. "The third
got it right," said Futrell. North Carolina, like many states (like
Florida!) use a hodgepodge
of systems, and spoiled ballot percentages that vary accordingly,
damaging the credibility of close votes.
So what happens if you are a
local official in a close race being decided by punch card ballots? You
lots of money and wait. A
local coroner?s race in Missouri took over two years to resolve,
bankrupting the two major contestants.
Government officials outside the
US have been vigilant about ballot spoilage, particularly in close
In a Toronto city
election during the mid-eighties, the spoilage rate amounted to
than 1%, but the margins in several minor races that year were less
third of that spoilage rate. Although in most districts no races were
the city went ahead with a comprehensive recount of all ballots across
city. Election explained their action as an attempt to audit what had
wrong with the count.
No amount a vigilance is a substitute for a better system, however.
Most people assume that better system should be computer-based.
The ACM developed a suggested
set of Characteristics
of a Good Electronic Voting System some years back. Many of the
systems being offered lack significant numbers of those
One commercial developer of
electronic voting machines, Microvote,
has developed a system they call "Infinity Voting Panels". These
used in a number of general elections in the United States this year.
many advantages. They are lightweight, and designed to be easily
to the extent of being taken out to the curb to allow the mobility
vote from their car. But the systems use dull, gray-on-gray liquid
displays, making for potential visibility problems. The company
the machine has what they call "transflextive"
lighting, which allegedly brightens or darkens in response to the light
area. But they are still more difficult to read than a traditional
That's important. An inability to read the ballot is what started
the whole mess up
in Century City Florida, a Palm Beach community of Senior citizens,
whom complained they couldn?t read the ballot they were given. As one advocacy
it, "Access to a secret ballot is guaranteed by most state
constitutions, but it is only a dream for those unable to use current
advocates for the handicapped prefer a design similar to eSlate's
Access Unit(tm) the DAU 5000, a computer system developed by Hart InterCivic which
specially modified computer for use by the handicapped. The machines
$2,500 each, with additional modifications such as the voice
another $1000 to each unit.
In addition the software for many of these systems is less than
perfect. Morgan County, Indiana used Microvote machines and eyebrows
were raised when they system seemed to have the ballots listed
in reverse order of what was intended, leading to last minute
and complaints by the losing Democrats.
Some activists maintain that the
software in most electronic
voting systems is insecure and allege that it would not take a
manipulation to defraud elections. In California, Gov Gray Davis cited
security concerns when he vetoed a bill that would have let local
an electronic voting system, based on Internet technology at several
Electronic voting critics were nearly
proved right in the most recent elections. In New Mexico?s Bernalillo
election officials nearly missed thousands of votes logged on
systems developed by Global Election Systems Inc because "someone in
clerk's office failed to ?click a box? on the computer menu" to
systems ability to count straight-party-ticket voting. The result was a
delay to manually re-tabulate votes.
Many observers have suggested that the
only means of guaranteeing that votes are fairly tabulated is to
a system based on auditable, "open source" software platform.
This could help the other problem
holding up widespread adoption; the cost of new technology.
is going to employ new
electronic voting systems similar to those now found in nearby suburbs,
won?t be cheap. The city?s Capital Programs Office budgeted for a $21
expenditure in 2001 and that may not be nearly enough. In Los Angeles,
projected bill of better than $98 million kept that county from
electronic voting system using touch screen computers.
Low cost, partly open systems helped
reduce the cost of electronic voting systems to the point that the
poor nation of Brazil could afford to adopt an electronic voting system
nationwide. The Brazilian government chose to use a system based on
bank teller technology, and in a test
with 33 million voters had a failure rate of only 0.9%. The
expects to go nationwide shortly, with over 77,000 voting stations
country. Ultimately the system should cover all of Brazil?s 323,000
stations. The system has
been endorsed by the International Foundation for
Election Systems and Roy G.Saltman, one of the leading experts on
systems technology, and a leading
critic of most US based systems.
Want to grow your own voting
system? You could do worse than to look
at the SENSUS
system, which was developed by AT&T?s Dr. Lorrie Faith Cranor
while she was still
a grad student at Washington University in St. Louis. The Sensus system
still has a number of conceptual and technical flaws, but it is as
to an open source electronic elections system
that I?ve seen anywhere. You?re invited to download
testing and evaluation purposes. I?d be interested to hear what you
Not that it?s going to do any
good this year....