Sunday, May 29, 2005

Voting machines and paper ballots

Having a paper trail with computer voting machines is slightly better than not having a paper trail, but it is still not good enough. From 'Avedon' at Eschaton:

". . . a paper trail is meaningless if no one ever looks at it. The initial count of optical-scan ballots is done by machine, and if you fiddle the machine count - which you obviously can - so that no race is close enough to require a recount, no one will ever know."


"See, if all those ballots from optical-scan machines were actually reviewed, we might find that there was no difference between the exit polls and the actual votes - that is, that the machines had been tweaked to give a false result.

But since no one ever demanded a hand-count of those ballots, it's unlikely that we'll ever know.

And that's why I'm unimpressed with mere 'paper trails'. Evidence is worthless if no one ever looks at it - and competently stealing an election just means making sure there is never a re-count. Functionally speaking, there is no difference between an election that can't be recounted and one that won't be recounted.

Which is why we need paper ballots that are publicly hand-counted on site, on the night. If we don't actually see the ballots being individually counted, we don't know that they have been counted properly."

Absolutely correct. If you are trying to fix an election, and it appears that the threshold for a paper recount is a three percent difference in votes, you just set the machine to win by four percent. In order to prevent this, you always have to have a hand count of the hard ballots. If you have scrutineers from every interested party physically present watching the hand recount, it is almost impossible to have a fixed result. Indeed, the only way to be sure of a fair count is to have an open hand count of physical ballots in front of witnesses. This leads to what I have called the paradox of voting machines: if we have to hand count anyway, why do we need the machines at all?