Monday, November 10, 2008

citizen engagement and e-voting

Before you work on the solution, you must first decide upon the problem, about what is important to you.

For many people concerned about democracy and about electronic voting, the problems we consider are:

* preserving the secret ballot
* retaining the right to an uncoerced vote
* the integrity and accuracy of the vote count (all votes gathered and correctly counted)
* the simplicity of the system (can voters understand how the entire voting system works?)

I call the above "The Democracy Requirements".

You will very rarely hear advocates of electronic and particularly Internet voting talking about any of the above concerns. What they talk about is:

* efficiency
* modernity
* convenience and customer service
* voter turnout (# of votes cast, % of eligible voters who cast votes)

You will notice this is a completely different set of problems.

I call the above "The Voter Engagement Requirements".

So in a sense, we're talking at cross-purposes.
The computer security experts say "electronic voting can never be secure, and you can never know that your vote was counted properly" and they say "we think security is a non-issue because (other technology with unrelated requirements) is 'secure', and e-voting is modern and convenient and young people will use it".

The Democracy Argument Against Electronic Voting (and some paper voting too)

It should be mentioned, the first set of issues applies to many, many other voting options. As soon as you compromise chain-of-custody and the private-in-public vote, you risk all except simplicity.

For example: mail-in voting.
1. If I can identify the sender (by watching the mail they send, by identifying their handwriting, by some unique identifier on their ballot), then no more secret ballot.
2. There is a huge chain-of-custody issue - anyone in the mail stream can intercept and destroy, replace or alter your ballot
3. Your enemies can stand beside you and force you to vote the way they want

These are not abstract issues and rights. People are injured and even die every year in countries where voting is taking your life into your own hands.

Even just advance voting introduces chain-of-custody issues.
(Battlestar Galactica showed a simple fictional scenario for compromising a paper-based election, by having collusion in the chain-of-custody so that an original ballot box was changed with one stuffed with votes for a particular candidate.)

So let me make it very clear: voting on one day privately, in public, on paper, with a hand-count of ballot boxes that never leave the polling station, with scrutineers from all parties watching the count - this is the most elegant solution I can think of to the key issues of secrecy, non-coercion, integrity, accuracy and simplicity.

A machine-mediated vote, or a machine-mediated count CANNOT do this, because you CANNOT (as in, technologically impossible) know what program the computer is actually running. You cannot meet these requirements with an electronic system. I know this is a world where there are few absolutes, but trust me, any computer security expert can tell you this.

The Voter Engagement Argument for Some (non-voting) Use of Electronic Systems

Ok, assuming you want to engage your citizens in some meaningful way, and not in some Canadian Idol illusion-of-convenience superficial way, then I thought it came out quite clearly in the TVO discussion that you need:

* leadership
* engaging issues
* a real connection with voters, particularly young voters

Do you see any mention of technology in the above three items?
There is no website that is going to make you a leader, there is no social network that is going to make your issues engaging, there is no blog posting that can substitute for actually listening to your constituents. IF you already have addressed those issues, then you can reach your voters using...

* radio
* television
* and maybe you've heard of this Internet thing?

Technology is not a solution. Technology is one channel to communicate your message. You have to have an interesting message, first.

If you want more people to vote, give them something they care about to vote for, convince them that their vote matters, and connect with them before and AFTER the election, to demonstrate that you value them for their opinions, not for their increment to your vote count.

If you do that, they will wait in lines for hours. Voting technology doesn't matter. It doesn't solve a problem that Canada has.

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elections are often surprisingly close

The classic Canadian example I usually use is the last Referendum on Quebec independence where it was 50.58% "No" to 49.42% "Yes".

There is another great example going on right now in the Minnesota senate race.
According to Daily Kos, "Today's latest results show [Democratic challenger Al Franken] is now trailing Republican incumbent Norm Coleman by 204 votes."

Wikipedia currently shows the tally at

Popular vote Coleman:1,211,562 Franken:1,211,356 Barkley:437,389

If you want that in percentages that's Coleman 41.988%, Franken 41.981%

That means if your voting machines have even a .01% error rate, they've already thrown the election. And the high-tech threat to Minnesota's optical mark-sense scanners? Dust.

Undecided Minnesota Senate Race Used Machines that Flunked Accuracy Tests - Wired - November 5, 2008

In an earlier posting, Wired writes

The problems occurred during logic and accuracy tests in the run-up to this year's general election, Oakland County Clerk Ruth Johnson disclosed in a letter submitted October 24 (.pdf) to the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC). The machines at issue are ES&S M-100 optical-scan machines, which read and tally election results from paper ballots.

Johnson worried that such problems -- linked tentatively to paper dust build-up in the machines -- could affect the integrity of the general election this week.

ES&S Voting Machines in Michigan Flunk Tests, Don't Tally Votes Consistently - Wired - November 3, 2008

Say what you will about human failure modes, but dust usually isn't one of them.

Given that
1. Elections are often surprisingly close
2. Integrity of the count is paramount (your vote must be correctly counted)
3. Machines have many failure modes
4. A paper count by humans can be open and easily verified and rechecked

Then the best option to ensure confidence in election results is: hand-counted paper ballots.

(I don't know whether the Minnesota recount will require hand-counts.)

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a note on navigation

If you want to find stuff from the last four years of this blog, the search button in the upper left is probably the best bet, e.g.



E-voting on TVO The Agenda November 10, 2008

The Debate: E-Voting: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Technology and the vote: Why has there been a stubbornly slow adoption of electronic voting?

The Agenda - November 10, 2008

Note: This episode has not yet aired, it will be on television tonight at 8 PM and again at (I think) 11 PM. The video is usually up online a few days after the show airs. I will update this posting with new information when available.

UPDATE: I have created a discussion thread on the "Your Agenda" discussion forum: e-voting. You'll have to create an account there if you want to add your thoughts before or after the show. ENDUPDATE

UPDATE 9 PM: The show has just ended. I thought the debate was good. I also thought it was positive that the debate focused on a much more realistic assessment of evoting in terms of voter engagement and turnout.

If voting was about convenience, you wouldn't have seen people standing in line for hours in the United States. Voting is about citizen engagement. If the citizens find something interesting to engage with, technology can be an enabler. But you don't need online voting for that, you need an online presence for every day other than the election, much as we're seeing already with Barack Obama, who reached out through BarackObama.com (and into many other Internet channels) and is now connecting with Americans through his transition site change.gov

To me this technology argument "young people use technology, so voting should use technology" is ridiculous. Young people aren't stupid. Putting up a Facebook page is not the answer, putting up content that they care about is the answer.

Both of the letters from the MPPs were very well informed.

As well Farhad Manjoo and Darin Barney were both well-informed about the technical issues, and it was great to see Don Lenihan being very clear that it is for the computer security experts to determine whether voting online is secure, not the politicians or corporations.

Marie Bountrogianni was obviously not well-informed about the technical issues, but unfortunately that didn't seem to stop her making incorrect assertions (if we can bank online, why not vote online? um, because they have COMPLETELY DIFFERENT SECURITY REQUIREMENTS).

John Hollins brings a corporate perspective to voting, talking about "serving customers", an approach which to be quite frank, I hate. Voters are not consumers being provided a service, they are citizens engaged in one of the few public activities of our democracy. Voting is not the same as paying a parking fine. (Longtime readers of this blog will know of Mr. Hollins and his boosterism for technology solutions.) In Canada we have very simple elections. You don't need a $3000 touchscreen voting machine with VVPAT paper trail, to record a single vote, so that when there's a problem, you can count the votes on the paper trail. JUST VOTE ON PAPER FIRST.

I will write a follow-up post on citizen engagement vs. e-voting.

Overall I thought it was a good discussion which in the end turned far more on the citizen engagement aspect.

After posting on the Agenda forum I was fortunate to get an email from Sandra Gionas and to have a chance to talk with her on the phone, and she has kindly included substantial quotes from me in her Inside Agenda blog posting Control, Alt, Delete and Vote.

I love the loaded language people use for paper voting: "quaint", "old-fashioned"

or for the lack of technology in Canada's federal elections: "stubbornly slow adoption".


This is what I had to say the last time someone argued that you couldn't stop the wheels of e-voting progress:

Ah yes. The real world. The modern world. The practical, down-to-earth, realistic, Common Sense Revolution world. Paper is obsolete, so old-fashioned, like the Geneva Convention and other inconveniences.


corporate voting bullshit - Paper Vote Canada - November 24, 2006

If paper voting is so obsolete, why is it that, overwhelmingly, the most articulate and forceful campaigners against electronic voting are computer scientists? Are computer scientists generally considered stubbornly slow adopters? Could it be that the actual experts in computer technology know that from the standpoints of security, cost, simplicity and core principles of democracy, electronic voting is just a very bad idea?

You don't believe me?

* Computer Scientists question electronic voting - March 3, 2003
* Computer scientists slam e-voting machines - CNet News - September 27, 2004
* Following issuance of an analysis by four computer scientists who were members of the SERVE Security Peer Review Group, the Pentagon decided to scrap plans for the use of this technology to cast ballots in the 2004 Presidential election.
* Computer scientists weigh in on e-voting - July 20, 2006
* UC Computer Scientists Release Video on How to Hack a Sequoia Touch-Screen Voting Machine - September 9, 2008
* E-Voting Doesn’t Get Computer Scientist’s Vote - October 10, 2008

I could go on listing reports and articles for many pages, but I hope I've made my point.

Not having electronic voting is not stubborn resistance to progress, it's rational opposition to expensive, unnecessary, insecure technology that will undermine the foundations of our democracy.

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