e-Democracy Symposium – Recounting/Auditing By Machine – The Devil Is In The Details

Yesterday I attended the spring symposium at the UConn Law School by the Connecticut Public Interest Law Journal: e-Democracy: Democratic Values In A Digital Age. There were three panels:

  • Campaigning On The Web
  • The Mechanics of Voting
  • Political Speech and the Internet

I found all three very interesting. Christine Stuart has an excellent article on the first panel at CTNewsJunkie I completely agree with her highlighting of Tim Tagaris, statement: “It’s Americans with computers, [not 20 somethings]”. The other point that rang true to me was that political blogging leads to personal interaction not isolation. I learned of the panel based on personal contact that was the result of political blogging, that was the result of personal contact that was the result of blogging…

The third panel discussed laws and regulations concerning political contributions, blogging, and the relationship of bloggers to campaigns. The summary was that political blogging is not regulated or restrained because, unlike television, it is open to anyone and thus does not need such regulation. I asked if the panel agreed that all their conclusions were based on “Net Neutrality”? Matt Stoller gave an impassioned response articulating current erosion of net neutrality.

The Second Panel: The Mechanics of Voting

The second panel covered the risks of electronic voting. Some of the issues we cover regularly here. The panelists were:

  • Lawrence Norden, Brennan Center for Justice, lead author of several significant reports on electronic voting. Mr. Norden also has worked to cause New York to make better choices in electronic voting.
  • J. Alex Halderman, Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University, and participant in the Diebold portion of the CA Top-To-Bottom Review.
  • Senator Gayle Slossberg, Co-Chair of the Connecticut General Assembly Government Administration and Elections Committee, and one of the authors of our audit bill, PA 07-194.

I appreciate all the panelists and their work for democracy. Also in attendance for the panel: Deputy Secretary of the State, Lesley Mara, several registrars, and more than several town clerks. I also appreciate their taking the time to be involved and informed. I was on the edge of my seat for the whole panel, wishing for more elaboration on some of the points, wishing it was more of a debate that I could join in. I fear that the lack of time, lack of common understanding, and background information between the panelists, and between the panelists and the audience may have left some significant misimpressions. Since I don’t have a transcript, you will have to go with my summary of what was said and of course my own impression of what might have been misinterpreted:

  • I completely agree with Mr. Norden’s statement that there is a lot we can do with what we have in time to improve the security of elections in time for November 2008.
  • I completely agree that Connecticut is much better off with optical scan than we would be with DRE (touch screen) voting equipment. I also agree that we have procedures that are better than those in many other states.
  • However our procedures are woefully inadequate to protect us. A chain-of-custody is only as good as the weakest link. Our procedures are inadequate, by their nature procedures are unenforceable, and have not been enforced. They have been regularly violated in the custody of ballots, audits, and memory card security.
  • Our 10% selection of districts for our post-election audits provides an easy claim to the strictest audit in the Country. That is misleading since the 10% is followed by a secret drawing of three or 20% of races to be audited, the law is full of loopholes, is articulated in inadequate, unenforceable, frequently violated procedures, and has proven in practice to provide no confidence that an error or fraud would be recognized. As Mr. Norden pointed out 10% can be overkill in some cases, unfortunately our audit law for the most part falls far short of the Brennan Center’s standards. Even that 10% is misleading since it is followed by a secret random drawing of three or 20% of races to be actually audited. And further while 10% for a state wide race would often be overkill, it is woefully inadequate to provide deterrence in state legislative races and most municipal races.

Recounting By Machine – The Devil Is In the Details

Once again, as has been the case since the November election we heard calls from officials for recounts by machine rather than hand counting. We also heard, once again, from Senator Slossberg that the Legislature may consider changing from manual recounts to machine recounts.

Here is where I saw the possibility of a large gap in understanding and context that may lead to misinterpretation of some of the remarks of the speakers.

In answer to a question of mine to Mr. Norden, where I asked how recounts by similar machines with similar memory card could discover problems, he answered that is was possible in cases where the machine used in the election was adjusted incorrectly or scanning incorrectly. I fear this may have left an impression with some that recounting by machine was fine. However, his answer, while technically accurate, has no relevance to catching errors or fraud having to do with software in the computer or in the memory card. Those would not be detected by running the same votes through properly setup, identically functioning computers and memory cards. In addition, if a variance were found based on an improperly functioning scanner, the question would then be which machine was more accurate – the original or the second one?

In his opening remarks Mr. Halderman mentioned that is was possible to recount and audit by reading votes through a new scanner and manually counting some votes, while saving huge sums of money, and in some cases reducing the actual hand counting to as low as 1 vote in 10,000. I agree. Yet, how many in the audience understood that he was talking about a completely different type of scanner, one that is not available commercially today. Yes, we could count and audit at a much lower cost with much more confidence – in fact the same type of technology could likely be used for the initial counting and avoid the second scanning (but the not the manual sample) altogether. The important point to understand is that this is not what is on the table in Connecticut at this time, when election officials, the Secretary of the State and the Legislature discuss recounting by machine.


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