Wednesday, October 22, 2008

machines: oh the many ways they can fail

The elections staff had collected electronic copies of the votes on memory cards and taken them to the main office, where dozens of workers inside a secure, glass-encased room fed them into the “GEMS server,” a gleaming silver Dell desktop computer that tallies the votes.

Then at 10 p.m., the server suddenly froze up and stopped counting votes. Cuyahoga County technicians clustered around the computer, debating what to do. A young, business-suited employee from Diebold — the company that makes the voting machines used in Cuyahoga — peered into the screen and pecked at the keyboard. No one could figure out what was wrong. So, like anyone faced with a misbehaving computer, they simply turned it off and on again. Voilà: It started working — until an hour later, when it crashed a second time.


so many printers had jammed that 20 percent of the machines involved in the recounted races lacked paper copies of some of the votes. They weren’t lost, technically speaking; Platten could hit “print” and a machine would generate a replacement copy. But she had no way of proving that these replacements were, indeed, what the voters had voted. She could only hope the machines had worked correctly.


In the last three election cycles, touch-screen machines have become one of the most mysterious and divisive elements in modern electoral politics. Introduced after the 2000 hanging-chad debacle, the machines were originally intended to add clarity to election results. But in hundreds of instances, the result has been precisely the opposite: they fail unpredictably, and in extremely strange ways; voters report that their choices “flip” from one candidate to another before their eyes; machines crash or begin to count backward; votes simply vanish.

An extensive New York Times Magazine report from January 6, 2008: Can You Count on Voting Machines?

And these are just the obvious, visible ways in which machines can fail.
There are many other silent ways in which the machines could fail internally that you would never detect.

You can move to optical mark-sense, but these are still machines:
* the poll workers need to get trained on them
* the paper can jam
* the scanners can fail
* the entire machine can fail

and on and on and on.

In case you think those are unlikely scenarios, they are already happening in advance voting in the United States.

The Jacksonville Times-Union reported long lines in northeast Florida, with at least two counties reporting problems with voting machines. In Duval County, 7 of 15 optical scanning machines used to count ballots had to be replaced, the newspaper reported.

Early voting suggests 2008 may see record turnout, expert says - CNN - October 21, 2008

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Monday, October 20, 2008

US moving to optical mark-sense rather than DRE

Note: DRE stands for Direct-Record Electronic, most commonly in the US these are "touch screen voting machines".

The main issue, according to a 2005 overview of electronic voting by the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California-Berkeley, is that if the record of votes cast exists only in digital form in a touch-screen system, there is no independent way to confirm the votes were recorded accurately and thus no way to conduct a reliable recount.

Overall, in the nation’s 170,000 polling places, there has been a shift from predominantly using manual systems (lever machines, punch cards, paper ballots) to computer-based systems (optical scan and DREs) in federal elections.

But according to news reports, as a result of the controversy over DRE machines, in the 2008 election many states might use optical scan paper ballots that require voters to fill in ovals with a pen.

Debate Continues over Security, Reliability of Voting Technology - America.gov - 27 August 2008

As I've said before, optical scan is the least-worst electronic technology, because you can at least do a manual recount of the paper ballots,

but you're still better off just counting the paper ballots by hand in the first place.


The Coast on electronic voting

The Coast has an excellent and extensive article on issues with electronic voting, particularly as related to the Halifax Regional Municipality.

It's no wonder that Americans are increasingly distrustful of the voting process. Voting experts challenge every aspect of elections, including the registration process, the procedures at the polling place itself, the use of electronic machines and the counting and recounting of votes.

Contrast the sour American experience to Canadian elections: In this country, voters show up at the poll and are handed a paper ballot and a pencil. They check the box next to their preferred candidate and put the ballot in a box. After the polls close, an election official opens the box, and the official and poll observers from the political parties examine each ballot and agree on how the vote was cast. A final tally takes about half an hour.

The Canadian system is clean, unambiguous and fair.

But the Halifax Regional Municipality doesn't like the Canadian system, and is determined to change it.

iVote: Can electronic voting save democracy? - The Coast - September 18, 2008

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Sunday, October 19, 2008

machines don't fail, people fail

There is this charming myth that machines are "reliable" and "correct" whereas people are error-prone. (The above post title is me being sarcastic.)

This will be shown to be totally false when, on election day, a percentage of the millions of voting machines fail in the following ways:

* mechanical failure
* touch screen misaligned
* touch screen doesn't work at all
* display screen fails (black screen)
* power fails
* printer fails
* card reader fails
* software error

If they were using Internet voting, the ways in which things could fail would be even more spectacular:

* computer monitor fails
* computer hard drive fails
* mouse not working
* keyboard error
* power fails
* network card fails
* router fails
* connection to ISP fails
* network attack or denial of service
* ISP hardware or software fails
* network transmission error
* voting software error
* central voting servers fail
* air conditioning in central voting server room fails
* power fails in central voting server room
* network fails in central voting server room
* server room catches fire (this happens more often than you might think)

Note that all of the above is just a sample of what WILL happen (the odds of a hard drive failing eventually are 100%) and none of the above require any malicious activity, just normal failures of systems. When you add in malicious activity, the scenarios get much, much worse.


and so it begins

"People make mistakes more than machines," said Jackson County Clerk Jeff Waybright.

Dear Jeff Waybright,

You are way wrong. You are confusing consistency with correctness. If a machine is programmed to do something (programmed, by a person) it will do that thing, consistently. If what it was programmed to do is WRONG, it will do it CONSISTENTLY WRONG.

Yours Truly,

Someone who actually knows about machines

Above quote from More W.Va. voters say machines are switching votes in the Charleston Gazette, October 18, 2008. The story reports that machines are not correctly displaying votes (presumably because of touch screen misalignment, or other malfunction).

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