Ballot-box stuffing goes high-tech

The new, improved, non-chad-impaired, computerized, whizz-bang touch-screen voting machines have one little problem: no audit trail. Paper or punch-card ballots are physical objects; having been counted once, they can be counted again to check. But if someone jimmies a touch-screen machine to take, say, every fifth vote for the Democratic candidate and assign it to the Republican candidate, there’s absolutely no way to know: the machine says what it says, take it or leave it. The same is true when a machine mysteriously resets its counters to zero after a bunch of people have voted, which has happened more than once.

The technical fix to this problem is straightforward: have the machines produce a printed ballot card for each voter, showing the candidates that voter was recorded as having voted for. The voter could inspect that ballot, make a fuss if there’s a mismatch, and then deposit the printed form in a physical ballot box. Random or for-cause audits would then detect any hanky-panky. That would be more expensive than pure touch-screen, because the machines would need printers, and it would presumably increase the maintenance burden, since the printers could jam. But it would more or less ensure an honest count.

The touch-screen manufacturers are resisting anything that would create such an audit trail. They also refuse to allow anyone to inspect the software that aggregates the results from individual machines into totals.

I don’t know how suspicious I am that elections are already being stolen in this way. There’s already evidence of fiddling around, as when three different Republican candidates in a county-wide election in Texas mysteriously scored the same total numbers of votes overall, despite having different totals in each precinct. Obviously, the Florida Secretary of State’s office managed to find a contractor willing to purge eligible voters under the guise of purging felons; finding a compliant vote-counting contractor doesn’t sound like an impossible task. The fact that Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska has an ownership interest in one of the leading touch-screen firms (which incidentally happens to count the ballots in Nebraska) doesn’t fill me with confidence.

[Note: Anyone who takes seriously the idea that Republican opposition to making voting easier (e.g., “motor voter” or election-day registration) is based on concerns about fraud ought to consider the utter lack of interest those same folks have displayed in the prospects for high-tech cheating. Glenn Reynolds is an honorable exception here.]

Rebecca Mercuri, a computer scientist at Bryn Mawr, seems to be the academic expert on this. Here’s a statement by a large group of academics opposing any paperless system. Seeing the Forest has a bunch of links. Election Issue Web Sites has more pointers.

[Previous post here.]

UPDATE: It gets worse: one of the companies in the absentee-ballot business is now Saudi-controlled.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: