back to article Dr. Strangevote saves mankind with Luddite voting recipe

When it comes to elections, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen opts for blander, more traditional technologies, and that preference is helping her sleep better at night. Speaking Wednesday at the Usenix Security Symposium in San Jose, California, the state's top elections official laid out a decidedly low-tech approach …

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Sam

Dr Strangelove

"Mein fuhrer...I have done it!"

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A politician having a reasonable thought....

...there had to be a first I suppose...

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@repo

"A politician having a reasonable thought.... "

Oh it goes far beyond that. California tested three E voting machines. They looked a the code determined they were crap.No meaningfully audit system When they were able to hack into them Die bold cried foul and said they were not being used in a normal way. Um yeah like some trying to hack the machine in real life is going to use it in a normal way.

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Flame

This is so stupid on so many fronts...

until recently (King George's administration), we had a paper ballot which was fool-proof (i.e., no hanging chads are possible). It's so simple...you have each candidate on a single line, with a broken arrow next to it. To choose the candidate, you take an impermeable marker and connect the pieces of the broken arrow next to the candidate.

That's right, it's Scan-Tron. It's so simple, we used it in middle school, high school, college and university for exams. The only way to screw it up is if you had some sort of disease that made it impossible to draw a straight line (and the voting officials supplied rulers if you needed them).

And yet, our stupid, clueless state government, in an effort to save money, converted to an extremely expensive and unsecure system that can be hacked by anyone, including the government itself, in order to dictate a certain outcome. Did I mention the CEO of Diebold, the maker of the voting system most widely used in the United States, is supposedly a hard-core Republican? Even if he isn't, wouldn't the thought of someone having any political bias programming and selling the ballot machines scare the shit out of you?

The makers and programmers of voting machines are king-makers. Our local and state governments have sold out the citizen's votes by giving the counting authority to private organizations. Game, set, election. This is a perfect example of why government outsourcing to contractors is completely and totally evil. Lack of responsibility, corruption, and conflicts of interest are stealing our rights one by one.

Damn you all, state and local governments, get rid of those damned programmable machines and go back to paper ballots! If you can't recount quickly enough, HIRE MORE COUNTERS! At least then you'd be doing your job and creating jobs (not like our current totally stupid and f**ked up administration).

Burn any voting machine that can be programmed to produce false data, and fire any official who's too lazy to do their damn job.

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She won't last long

You can't have people in a position of power trying to be sensible and stand up to the Machine like that.

However, good try, let's hope you can hold the tide back longer than Knut. Paper ballots are a lot harder to corrupt in a significant way without people noticing.

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So they finally caught up

The small Michigan town I live in has been doing this since at least 1998. I can't say how long before that as I moved here in 1997. Nice to know the high tech types in California have finally caught up to small town USA.

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RW
IT Angle

What happened to electromechanical voting machines?

These were fixtures at US elections since God knows when.

I've read that they were preferable to paper ballots because of the complexity of US elections where not only a single Representative (roughly equivalent to MP) is elected, but in some years a Senator, perhaps the Prez (& veep), plus the dogcatcher, judge, sheriff, assessor, and a host of other public offices. To say nothing of referenda, initiaitives, and recall ballots.

Or have optical scanners made the paper ballot feasible once again?

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Go

eltiT

That is how Australia has done it for many years. If there are extremely narrow margins or contested results : do a manual recount. Simple.

"Paper Voting - so easy an Aussie can do it"

And voting is compulsory over here too, but ....

It is technically illegal to write "none of them" on your ballot paper, and not tick any boxes, but since voting is anonymous, they can't prove it was you!

Anon, just because.

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Pirate

Or have optical scanners made the paper ballot feasible once again?

Not if the apparently already-forgotten-by-some fiasco of the last set of Scottish Parliamentary and Local Governmental elections is anything to go by!

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Happy

It seems to me..

That all the electronic voteing (Ignoring coruption) is about saving time and money. This is an election FFS. If what it takes is every vote being hand counted three times then it should be done.

There should be no room for error, and only the safest and most transparent method should be used no matter what the cost.

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Anonymous Coward

Multiple elections

on the same ballot are a stupefyingly bonkers idea. At least have different sheets for each post under selection...

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Anonymous Coward

Eh?

If it's cheaper then that's a good reason for paper, but how? You need loads of people to count them all.

Is it as accurate? A computer count is a computer count, if I'm sitting there counting papers, I can count what I want.

Audit trail? How auditable is paper? You don't get a receipt there, you don't knwo how your vote was counted.

Idiots, the land of the free is also the land of the mind bogglingly stupid, a minority simply can't use a pen, but they should still get a vote.

Recounts wouldn't be necessary with computer recorded votes. The fact they exist demonstrates the fallibility of the paper system.

Fundamentally the problem is the machines not the concept and that largely comes from poor specification.

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Alert

A strange correllation?

"I sometimes wonder if those who continue to deny the stunning insecurities of the electronic voting systems that are on the market are the soul mates of those who persist in denying the evidence of global warming,"

So, we're attempting to link people who have their heads in the sand over flaws proven under scientific conditions with people who incoveniently present evidence that contradicts the accepted sacred cow of Global Warming. How does that work? Chalk 'n cheese.

"I sometimes wonder if those who blindly accept the infallibity of electronic voting systems despite the existance of much scientific evidence to the contrary are the soulmates of those who blindly accept anthropogenic Global Warming as a fact despite the existance of much scientific evidence to the contrary."

There, that makes *much* more sense.

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Unhappy

Lest we forget:

"That is how we decide what our collective will is and how we have chosen to give up bullets and instead rely on ballots. It is really critical for us to get this right."

This is because when the ballots fail, bullets will fly.

Anyone who criticizes the U.S. for having widespread gun ownership should take heed to these statements. This is the only reason the U.S. government hasn't went any farther than they already have in taking away our right to vote. It's nice to see someone giving a harrumph about this issue and trying to keep their phoney-baloney job.

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Reading between the lines...

I suspect that she was hinting at:

"I sometimes wonder if those who continue to deny the stunning insecurities of the electronic voting systems that are on the market are the soul mates of those who persist in denying the evidence of global warming, because both groups are tied to a certain corrupt political movement with strong vested interests and a track record of grinning and saying 'so what?', when caught with its pants down".

As to 'Sacred Cow, Global Warming', the consequences of getting it wrong are *quite* serious, so, if you're just recycling and excreting other opinions to satisfy your particular emotional bent, as opposed to knowing what you're talking about, you should really keep your opinion to yourself.

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Alert

Leaving out...

...the bit of Californian left wing hippie propaganda about global warming/cooling/whatever it's doing this week, that made a lot of sense.

Given, governments (all governments) and IT just don't seem to work very well.

Given, that paper voting has worked, without too much in the way of problems, for some years.

Given, that electronic voting has hardly been an unqualified success.

Given, that the electorate's confidence in the, shall we say, impartiality of the providers of the technology is likely to reduce the perception of 'a fair vote', which in the long term will do immense damage to the basic concept of democracy...

Yup, I agree with the lady.

BUT - I wonder what her chances are of surviving this? Given that she's in the process of rattling the bars of both big business, and the political establishment?

I shall watch the chain of events unfold with interest...

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@ JonB

"Audit trail? How auditable is paper? You don't get a receipt there, you don't knwo how your vote was counted."

No, you don't, but the candidate you voted for gets a piece of paper in a box, which is pretty damn auditable, hence the common expression "paper trail".

You're asking the wrong question. The right question is "How easy would it be to change the result of the election?". To be quite honest, I don't care whether my vote is counted. What matters to me is that the result is the same as if all the votes (mine included, of course, but also everyone else's) were counted perfectly. I need to wake up the day after the election and believe that the system delivered a result that is in keeping with the actual wishes of the general population.

If the election is entirely electronic, it might be quite hard to break into the machinery but once you are in you can pretty much choose the result. That's what everyone is worried about.

If it involves large numbers of boxes full of paper, it might be possible to lose or find the odd vote here or there, but actually changing the result requires electoral fraud on an industrial scale. So, Zimbabwe excepted, it doesn't happen.

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Confirmation

"The move has made her unpopular in some circles"

Which rather suggests that she's got it right.

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jon
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Electronic voting is a dangerous solution in search of a problem that does not exist

Paper and pencil is all that is required. So what if it takes a few hours to count the votes? Getting elections right is so important that I think we can justify taking a little time doing it.

Reminds me of that myth about the space pen that NASA spent millions on while the Russians simply used a pencil...

Could we have a Knight Rider icon for problems "that do not exist"?

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Anonymous Coward

@Ken Hagan

>If the election is entirely electronic, it might be quite hard to break

>into the machinery but once you are in you can pretty much choose

>the result. That's what everyone is worried about.

That's true of the plastic boxes as well.

I still think it's that the problem is ill defined, it's hard to get in if the machines aren't networked (You need staff onsite anyhow, they can read off the numbers and phone them in (cryptographic checksum on it if you're paranoid).

They could print off receipts, with a cryptographic hash of the vote, the id, the machine and the time - a better receipt than the paper ones.

Besides, how auditable is a box filled with hard to trace paper? All you can do is count it and argue over whether they drew the cross in the right way.

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Black Helicopters

"impartiality of the providers of the technology"

I would imagine that the vast majority of the voting populace will be utterly ignorant of whosoever the technology providers are, far less any idea (or concern) of their political 'interests'. All the sheeple care about is just how much (or rather, how little) time/physical effort out of their 'busy' lives voting will take. That's why this form of voting is SO attractive. The sheeple love it!

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Why Perfect?

Why is there such a concern about the complete and perfect accuracy of votes? Surely as long as the margin for error is lower than the winning margin everything is fine.

For example if the wining candidate has 200,000 votes more than the second place one does it matter that 10 votes were not counted, or even 100,000? Even if they were all for the second place candidate the winner remains the same does it not?

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Tim

Democracy?

In the UK we have an elected Dictatorship. Every 4 years we vote in another dictator. I'm just trying to remember the last time I voted on something other than a Candidate and guess what? I never have.

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Anonymous Coward

Scottish Elections

Was the problem there not more to do with running two elections on the same day, where each voter had three votes: constituency MSP (one choice - First Past The Post - X marks the spot); top-up list (ditto); and an STV ballot for the councils (1,2,3 etc preference - used for the first time in the totally revamped councils)? Loads of people misunderstood the instructions, so there were plenty of FPFP ballots with 1, 2, 3, 4 etc on them & vice versa. Result: even the best scanning technology can't cope: loads of "too many candidates chosen" errors for the parliamentary ballots, loads of council ballots where it tried to interpret a cross & came up with "4" as best fit - so where were choices 1/2/3?... fear, uncertainty, doubt, recrimination... and all in an election with the result sufficiently close that such cock-ups may have had an effect on who became First Minister.

If in doubt (and especially if you've brought in changes but not explained them very well), blame the technology...

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politician says sane & silly in same sentence (no shock here, move along)

Well said Debra Bowen in your objective criticism of the egregious implementations of e-voting technology being foisted on the people of the US.

Sad, though, that Debra B then muddies the water by making the analogy with the weight of the body of evidence about climate change.

The planet's climate has always changed, but not all implementers of technology with evidential requirements have been as wicked, lazy, stupid, venal and obscurantist as Diebold et al have been.

Debra B's next job should now be to ensure that the ballot for the dog-catcher and the garbage contractor are on separate pieces of paper than that for the District Attorney. I recall a Robert Heinlein story ("Friday", I think) in which the US had 'balkanised' and the Independent Republic of California was in a constant state of voting on something every day.

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@JonB

"How auditable is paper? You don't get a receipt there, you don't know how your vote was counted."

1) It doesn't matter how *your* vote was counted, it matters that *the* vote was counted accurately. If (a) you're happy that you voted for candidate "X", and (b) all the votes for candidate "X" were accurately counted, then all is well. Given the non-techcy nature of most people, even today, convincing them that a machine can do (a) is tricky, and satisfactorally proving that the machine does (b) is very difficult.

2) In the UK, at least, there is an audit trail. A ballot can be linked to it's stub, and the stub to a voter. It would take enormous legal work, and a lot of co-ordination, to do so, but in extreme cases it is possible. The concept of a secret ballot isn't necessarily the same as that of an anonymous one.

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Pirate

Re: It seems to me..

Its not about saving time and money

Its about making money

Government the western world over is mesmerised with IT for some reason and the snake oil salesmen are laughing all the way to the bank with our tax money.

All government computers should have metal framed keyboards hooked up to the mains until pols and civil servants develop a healthy aversion to all electrickital satanic devices.

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How about this...

To move towards a paper trail, but still managing to cut costs, print some sort of receipt on heat sensitive paper after you punch a button on the machine :-P

Nice compromise, don't you think?

After Living in the Midwest for a couple of years now, I'm still amazed of how ingrained certain ways of thinking are. If some public figure says 'everything is all right, don't worry', people tend to no longer worry about things.

Chrysler is selling cars here in the US, promising that when you buy a new one, you'll get three years x 12,000 miles gas for only $3 per gallon (US, that is). So what was the problem again about raising fuel prices? Just buy a new car, and you're good for another three years, right?

So when talking about 'evoting is good' or 'evoting is bad', it feels to me that people tend to just listen to their favorite 'news channel', and just regurgitate the commentary made by the anchors in public. It's scary.

People vote with their pocketbook. 'Does it affect my bottom line?' If so, i will vote in whatever sounds the best in my current situation, not the one that might help out in the future. So if evoting is cheaper than getting the people to count the votes manually, that's what it's going to be.

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the fix is in and forgotten

Check it out:

http://www.votersunite.org/electionproblems.asp

Do you ever wonder how the world might be if Gore wasn't cheated of being elected in 2000?

Florida and Ohio were the lynch-pins of Bush's 2000 election. Ohio election board officials have been convicted of vote tampering (after a Republican administration enacted a paper-less, non-auditable electronic voting system). The Florida elections scandal was played out in the press. Pop Quiz: Who was the Governor of Florida during the 2000 elections?

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Irish abandoned evoting

A few years ago the Irish invested a lot of money [~52 million Euro] into the development of evoting. We abandoned it after a short time [one or two votes]. Security fears being top of the list of reasons. It was an expensive folly but at the end it is one of the few times the government listened to the people and returned to paper ballot counting [that and they probably feared that the opposition had a few computer savvy hacker types locked in the basement for the sole purpose of rigging the election unfairly].

Note Hand counting is very difficult in the Irish system, as it is unusually complicated due to vote transfer rules and the generally large number of parties/groups in any major election, except presidential, we skipped our last one as nobody stood against Mary Mac.

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/10/24/irish_elections_in_a_box/

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Stop

@ JonB

A receipt doesn't really help. It can't really show *how* you voted, otherwise it could be used for voter coercion (think "everybody who has taken time out of work to go to the polling station, please show your receipt showing your vote for the factory owner's brother-in-law in order to avoid losing a day's wages"). It can only show *that* you voted. And an abstention is a valid vote, so you ought to be able to ask for a receipt even if you did not vote. So all that your receipt proves is that you were *entitled* to vote -- and in a democracy, that's the same thing as being alive.

Even if we sacrificed the confidentiality of the ballot and issued everyone with receipts showing who they voted for and when, the problem would not be solved. In order to contest the result, you would have to get every single voter and their receipt together in the same room at the same time. Otherwise the result is meaningless, and certainly not worth compromising voter secrecy over.

The point is, most of the other voters in any election in which you are voting are strangers to you and you will have no idea how they might vote. Even if you can supposedly check how your vote was counted, and maybe even if you can check how a few people's votes were counted, you *don't* know how *everyone else* voted. And there are always more of them than there are of you.

I have already showed on here somewhere before just how easily an election could be rigged, while apparently affording every voter the chance to see see how they and everyone else voted; but basically, the trick is that each person gets to see a slightly different version of The Big List, which shows their votes and the votes of their friends, neighbours and family correctly, while deliberately misrepresenting the votes of just enough strangers to make up the announced result.

Pencil and paper and manual counting by the actual candidates is the only sane way to do it. It takes advantage of the implicit adversarial relationship: none of the candidates trust any of the others, so any attempt on a lie will be called out immediately.

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Stop

Just say no to devaluing democracy.

Electronic voting devalues democracy. As do all the other attempts to make it "easier", with postal ballots for people who don't need them, etc.

Elections matter, voting is important. Far to important to be entrusted to machines or code.

Paper ballots cast in secret at physical polling stations are the only safe way to conduct elections. Just say no to anything else.

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Addressing a few points

Re: Multiple elections (...)

@ Anonymous Coward

(...) on the same ballot are a stupefyingly bonkers idea. At least have different sheets for each post under selection...

...so each voter is handed a sheaf of as many as twenty slips of paper, marks them each without dropping any, then drops each into a separate ballot box for each political race and ballot initiative without dropping any in the wrong one by mistake...

Not forgetting that, for every voting precinct, the municipality would have to own, store, maintain and verify the integrity of as many ballot boxes as they would expect to need in a worst-case scenario, rather than needing to do this for only one or two boxes per precinct...!

The city where I live, for example, is divided into 11 Wards, each of which is divided into 3 Precincts. Currently, that means, essentially, 33 ballot boxes (plus any small number of backups kept in case one or more "active" boxes is unusable) need to be checked before an election. A major election with ballot initiatives included could, as I noted above, have 20 different spaces to be marked on a sheet. Twenty different slips and ballot boxes would mean that we would need a minimum of 660 boxes stored, serviced, etc., for their once- or twice-yearly use!

Not happening.

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@ jon

(...)

"Reminds me of that myth about the space pen that NASA spent millions on while the Russians simply used a pencil...

Could we have a Knight Rider icon for problems "that do not exist"?"

Not to go off-topic, but which myth was that...? IIRC NASA didn't finance the "Space Pen" Fisher Industries developed them on their own for use in areas where regular pens wouldn't work and brought the idea to NASA.

Also, I believe that either Armstrong or Aldrin confirmed the story that they needed to use their pen to start the LEM's return-module engine after the switch got broken off by one of their EVA backpacks.

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Re: Why Perfect?

@ Wil Rockall

"For example if the wining candidate has 200,000 votes more than the second place one does it matter that 10 votes were not counted, or even 100,000? Even if they were all for the second place candidate the winner remains the same does it not?"

It's less an issue of "not counted" than it is an issue of votes apparently "flipped" by the software. There were reports in some areas (*cough*Ohio*cough*) in the 2004 elections where votes for certain Democratic candidates simply wouldn't register, but appeared onscreen as votes for the Republican candidates.

In the example that you give, if those 100.000 votes get flipped (as opposed to "not counted"), the race becomes a tie, rather than a 200,000-vote victory.

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Transparency

Things that happen inside computer systems are opaque, often even to those of us who spend most of our days, and many of our nights in front of the bastards.

Paper ballots are easily understandable by everyone, and you can stand behind someone and watch them count the votes.

Simple, really. No one will ever trust an electronic ballot. Which is a Good Thing.

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Anonymous Coward

Receipts.

>A receipt doesn't really help. It can't really show *how* you voted

No it doesn't, but strangely one of the main objections to electronic voting is that there's no receipt, which seems odd.

Besides a secure receipt that holds either encrypted or no information could be used to confirm that a vote was recorded by you (abstention would have to be a vote option). In the event of disputes it could form part of the audit trail that currently doesn't exist with paper.

I _do_ want my vote counted, the margin of error is hard to measure precisely when you never had an accurate count in the first place.

>problems "that do not exist"?

- GW's first election involved several recounts and not just in the questionable Florida poll.

- People spoil ballots, accidentally.

- Machines can do larger print or talk and switch languages.

- If you don't have any arms, then it's hard to write a cross, given recent policy decisions we now have many more people in that position who will need help from someone else to vote. A machine can be easier to throw a stump against even Steven Hawking should be able to vote unaided these days (maybe he has a pen trick that I don't know about?).

- The count comes in quicker, look at the tension when it takes weeks to reach a conclusion.

- Fewer staff are needed.

- The counters have no loyalties.

Obviously it's important that the machines are suitable, I think that's the main issue here, is that companies are producing pretty rather than functional.

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Joke

@Tom Turck

That's because you can safely disenfranchise the democrats- What are they gonna do, post snarky comments on message boards for the next 8 years?

Whereas Republications own things like guns, or work in jobs where a strike could cripple a nation, instead of just not being able to get a Big Mac.

(Tongue in cheek- Mostly. I do often wonder why people who honestly think Gore was cheated are unwilling to risk their "Lives, Liberty, and Sacred Honor", yet still think they are worthy of having a vote.)

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@ JonB

"No [a receipt] doesn't [help], but strangely one of the main objections to electronic voting is that there's no receipt, which seems odd." -- That's because the objectors know that *something* is wrong, but not exactly what; so they pick something just so they can have a concrete objection.

"Besides a secure receipt that holds either encrypted or no information could be used to confirm that a vote was recorded by you (abstention would have to be a vote option). In the event of disputes it could form part of the audit trail that currently doesn't exist with paper." -- **No** **it** **couldn't**. Not if the Town Hall are in on the scam, anyway.

Suppose Candidate A receives 500 votes, B receives 390 and C receives 110. These are the actual votes, remember. The announced result, however, is A 380, B 500, C 120. (Note that those figures are not so far out as to be utterly implausible. If they wanted to get a candidate elected in the face of very strong opposition, they might have to field a few extra candidates of their own just in order to split the vote.) You voted for A. You go with your receipt to the Town Hall to check how your vote was recorded, and are correctly told you voted for A. And that's as far as you can take the matter.

Even if all 499 of the other people who voted for A go and check, they'll be told -- rightly -- that their vote was for A. And because (1) they all go in one at a time and (2) there are also many B- and C-voters in there, *not one single one* of the A-voters will be the slightest bit the wiser that there are really 500 of them, as opposed to the 380 that was announced.

You could only determine that something was amiss if all those A-voters produced their receipts for Candidate A at the same time. And in reality, the proportion of voters who will actually bother to check their vote will be minuscule.

If needs be, the officials can even produce forged ballot papers in the correct quantities. And can you really be bothered to search through 380 little pieces of paper to find the one which has the numbers 1 to whatever in your own handwriting, while a Town Hall official is breathing down your neck?

By the time an election has been rigged, it's already too late to do anything about it except re-run the election from scratch. Forget about building in error correction and concentrate instead on prevention and detection.

The beauty of a hand-marked paper ballot (besides Universal Comprehensibility, and that should not be underestimated) is that the same object that was marked by the voter is the actual object that is counted. This removes a huge potential failure mode. And we can make sure that interfering with a marked ballot paper before the count is if not impossible then highly noticeable.

"I _do_ want my vote counted, the margin of error is hard to measure precisely when you never had an accurate count in the first place." -- but the problem, as I am sick of pointing out, is that *your* vote isn't the one that made the difference. It's *everybody else's* votes, all jumbled together in a great anonymous pile, that made the difference. And you most probably have to produce some form of identification to check your vote -- which means they know whose vote to show correctly.

"- If you don't have any arms, then it's hard to write a cross" -- then vote by proxy. Special arrangements can be made for disabled people to accompany their proxy into the polling booth. The point is that arrangements made for disabled persons should not impact upon the able-bodied majority.

"The count comes in quicker, look at the tension when it takes weeks to reach a conclusion" -- give me **right** over **fast** any day.

"Fewer staff are needed" -- So what? It's not as if they are getting paid.

"The counters have no loyalties" -- but that's the whole genius with manual counting! Each candidate is directly involved in the count, and none of them trust any of the others. Everyone counts their own votes and everyone else's, and the results are only announced when all parties agree. And the only way they can possibly agree is if everyone is telling the truth.

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