How to do voting

The Days When Democracy In America Was Bogus

First, three stories. One comes from other sources, not verified, but everyone at the time (it is said) knew it to be true. Political operatives in the Boston area used to visit the train yards during the days and hours before a local mayoral election. They would round up the numerous "bums and hobos" (now known as homeless people) living in the train yards. Those interested, which appear to have been most, would accept a bit of cash and a broken comb. The cash was their payoff. The comb was broken in such a way that if you set it next to the paper ballot at the voting location, the missing teeth would indicate where to place your mark.

Second story: something I observed as a kid. I would be taken to the election site every year, the fire house on Delaware and Marshall in Albany New York, by one of the adults voting in our house, usually my grandmother. On at least one occasion, I observed a man sitting on a tall ladder, I assume supplied by the fire department. Here is how you voted. You would go up to a desk and give your name. The person at the desk would say your name out loud, and the guy on the ladder would look you up on a list. Then, you would go into the voting booth and pull the big red lever, which would close the curtain. The mechanical voting machine had one lever for each candidate, which were organized in columns. President, governor, mayor, various other candidates, stacked up, all of the candidates in one party per column. At the top of the column was the lever to "vote the ticket." If you wanted to vote for all Democrats, you just flip the lever at the top of that column.

These levers were all visible to the guy on the ladder. That is why he was on the ladder. If you pulled the Democratic Party lever, you got a check mark next to your name.

Then, the next summer, you take your kid down to city hall to get a summer job. Or, you get pulled over by the cops for speeding or get a parking ticket. Or the tax assessors come to set a value for your home to determine your property tax. Or you call in a big pothole in front of your house, to get if fixed. If your name has the check on it, your kid gets the job, your traffic ticket is fixed, your taxes are lower, and your pothole gets fixed. There was a staff of ticket fixers up on the top floor of City Hall, in the tax assessors domain, correlating, mostly, parking tickets to checkmarks. And so on.

Third: I helped a bit with the recount of a major election a couple of years ago. I heard something interesting while doing that. A democratic official working on the recount noted that he was, years ago, in the US Navy, and had the job of collecting write-in ballots for a large unit (a destroyer or something). What they really did, he said, was to get the write-in ballots, get a few guys together, and write in all the votes, for as it turns out, the Republican presidential candidate. That man should be in jail, but instead, he is in charge of elections. (The fact that he switched party is meaningless.)

My point is simply this: In America, we have a long tradition of fixing the vote. How much votes are or have been fixed varies, certainly, across states and cities. I lived in a totally rigged city, with a political machine running things. I'm intimately aware of how that machine worked, because I was one of the kids who got the summer job, and this eventually put me in direct contact with the operatives. I saw the traffic tickets getting fixed, and so on. The other thing that varies across states and cities is the degree to which the citizens assume voting is always clean vs. assume it is often dirty, or something in between. But the two, how often voting is fixed and how much people assume it is or is not, are probably not very well correlated. The vast majority of Americans, I suspect, don't think this is a thing we do in this country.

I hope, and there is evidence for this, that the blatant and systematic fixing of votes we saw in Depression Era Boston or Machine Era Albany, is a thing of the past. Our democracy was far more bogus back than than it is now.


We Are Still Doing Voting Wrong

Maybe, maybe not. But one thing a lot of people fear is that with electronic voting, the old days of comb- or ladder-assisted election fraud are coming back.

We are not doing voting right in the US. First, we have vastly different ways of doing it across states. It is highly unlikely that each state has special problems that require different approaches. Rather it can be assumed that one or two states do it best (though maybe not well enough) and all the other states are inferior. That should give pause.

We've seen enough messing around with electronic voting, or voting where machines are too much involved, to suspect this is a game-able system. A recent case in Kentucky underscores this problem.

For the gubernatorial race between Democrat Conway, Republican Bevin, and some other guy, the polls looked like this:

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 11.41.06 AM

From Huffpo Pollster, looking only at likely voters in non-partisan polls, we have this:

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 11.43.19 AM

So the race should have been close, with Conway likely to win.

Here is what happened.

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 11.44.05 AM

Major reversals happen, and this could be that. Note that the other guy (Curtis) lost three points the final polling than in the predictive polls, so third party voters switching to a mainstream candidate could explain this. But, in down ticket races, the Democrats all did as expected in relation to the Republicans. Also, Kentucky tends to elect Democratic governors. So, this is not a 100% clear cut case of something gone wrong, but this is a race one would want to look at. Poll analyzer Richard Charnin has an analysis that certainly brings up questions. (See also this summary.)

We also know that the two major parties have differences in how often ballots are improperly counted, depending on the kind of ballot system used, such that more Democratic voter's ballots are disregarded. This was obvious in the Coleman-Franken recount. In that case, Coleman won the election by a couple of hundred votes, which required a recount. After the recount, which was done very carefully and properly, Franken had won by an order of magnitude more votes. Most of that change consisted of Democratic voters messing up their ballots by accident. If you have a big tent party, there's gonna be a few people in the tent who can't draw a straight line (we use straight lines to pick our candidates in Minnesota).

How To Do Voting Right

I think we should reject electronic voting entirely. Casting an electronic ballot is asking for the vote to be hacked. Just don't do that.

Machine assisted voting is a good idea. People will mess up a paper ballot quite often. If a machine was used to properly produce a paper ballot, the paper ballots could be checked for accuracy, would be devoid of confusing marks or other goofs, and be valid 99.99% of the time.

We could, of course, use basic counting machines to get a preliminary count of those ballots. This should be followed by an audit that verifies the overall processing of ballots and samples a subset of ballots in order to determine that everything went well. How large that sample is should be determined by the closeness of the vote.

Automatic recounts are normal for many districts, but the threshold to trigger a recount varies. That threshold should follow national best practices, and be larger than most thresholds currently are (a few percent at least).

In the end, the official ballots will be paper ballots with a low frequency of mistakes, which can be hand-and-eye recounted to verify the machine counts. In the event of a full recount, every ballot would be examined as per normal.

This is not hard. What I'm suggesting here is, as far as I can tell, the best way to do voting. Since write-in ballots would not be machine-made, adding a provision to send back bad ballots submitted prior to a certain date may be necessary, especially in states where a very large percentage of the votes are sent in.

I think the average citizen in the US is too trusting of how the system works. Well, really, most people either trust the system not at all, or assume there is not really any intentional election rigging. But election rigging has always been part of the voting process in the US, being a major factor at some times and places, and hopefully a minor factor most of the time in most place. But electronic machine voting provides yet another opportunity for both voter suppression and election fraud, and if more electronic voting is implemented, we should see more voter fraud. There is too much at stake, and people generally are not as trustworthy as we would like. We need a system that simply does not allow this to happen at all.

More like this

After last week's New Hampshire primaries, I've gotten a lot of email requesting my take on the uproar surrounding recounts and voting machines. For those who haven't heard, there's been some chatter about cheating in the election. In polls leading up to the election, Barack Obama was leading by…
... and there is strong evidence of shenanigans on the part of Coleman supporters (or someone). As I mentioned earlier, the idea is afoot that there will be more of a shift towards Al Franken in geographical regions that favor Franken than in Coleman-sympathetic regions, in the current US Senate…
The recount in the Minnesota Governor's race is almost done. As of yesterday evening, only five counties had counting to do. The state "canvassing board" (in charge of the recount, headed by the Secretary of State), is scheduled to meet on December 8th to resolve the recount. That may get done…
As a very hectic week settles down a bit, I can give you a little more information and perspective on the Minnesota US Senate Race recount. There are a number of misconceptions circulating about this process that I can dispel, and I have a pair of predictions for you: Taking the same exact data,…

How about addressing the biggest, most effective vote fraud scheme of them all? Gerrymandering.

Vote fraud should be a capital offense.

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 09 Nov 2015 #permalink

I filled out an anonymous (I suppose) scantron form, in ink, that was then fed into a form reader. Theoretically, there is the paper ballot to correlate to the electronic data. But I do miss the old mechanical voting machines we used to use in NY.

By Raucous Indignation (not verified) on 09 Nov 2015 #permalink

This issue needs to be at the top of our agenda (co-equal with climate change), otherwise democracy will become meaningless (as we go slowly extinct).

I'm told that Canada uses printed ballots marked by hand and counted by hand, and has far fewer problems than we have here with our American obsession with putting computers in everything (what next, a computerized salt shaker?).

The place for computers in the process is this: manual counting of the paper ballots should be put on streaming video in every district, with permanent official recordings made.

Wide-view cameras would let people see that ballots were being handled properly. Close-up cameras would let people see that votes were being counted properly.

A running time stamp in a corner would enable any person to refer to any specific time in the process if they spotted an irregularity. There would be official recordings of the video and audio, and any person could also record it on their own device.

If it takes a Constitutional amendment to ensure that every citizen has a guaranteed right to vote (it is not presently an enumerated right) and that every vote must be recorded and counted accurately, so be it. That would be one heck of an interesting campaign.

Between now and then we can do it state by state, and we can publish findings about specific states and counties that have problems with their voting and vote-counting processes.

Though, I'll differ with Brainstorms @ 1 about "capital offense." Five years in federal prison for each offense, mandatory sentence upon conviction, would probably be sufficient as long as all cases were prosecuted. Per findings in criminology, the swiftness and certainty of conviction is a more effective deterrent than the harshness of the punishment.

I don't know about Canada, but "printed ballots marked by hand and counted by hand" is how we do things here in the UK, and it mostly seems pretty legit. There has been a big rise in postal voting over the last couple of decades though, which seems to be where problems are sneaking in...

New Hampshire law requires paper ballots for all elections. In some towns the ballots are fed through vote-reading machines, but others hand-count the ballots. Voting is also run at the municipal level, which makes it more logistically difficult to fix statewide elections.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 10 Nov 2015 #permalink

G: I think automatic counting machines together with a high density hand count would serve a similar purpose as the videos.

Eric, in Minnesota the state oversees the process but much of the actual work is done at the county level.

Greg, the point of hand counts that are video-broadcasted live over the internet, is to enable any interested person anywhere, to be a direct witness to the vote count anywhere (their own county or elsewhere). This has two salutary effects:

One, it gives people confidence in the system because they can watch and understand exactly what is going on, with no sophisticated knowledge needed. Unlike any machine-based vote counting system, that by its inherent nature is too fast to watch and understand in real-time. (If you slow down the machine to the point where live humans can understand what it's doing, there is no advantage whatsoever to the machine.)

Two, it would be a highly effective deterrent to election fraud. A county that is suspected by the public to have a "vote counting problem" would attract a large number of people watching it like hawks. The ability for everyone to record what they see is trivial to implement, and is a check and balance against suspicions about the official recordings.

To this I would add: broadcast the entire chain of custody of ballots, from the moment they are placed in ballot boxes. This would also be easy to do. Every ballot box would have a tripod at the top with a camera looking down: so it has a constant view of every hand putting a ballot in the box, and any attempt to open the box. The cameras would also broadcast (via cellular uplink with GPS) as the ballot boxes are taken to the vote counting stations, where they would come under observation by the cameras at the vote counting stations. This would eliminate the problem of ballot boxes taking naughty side-trips before they were officially opened.

There is no need for computerized voting machines or vote-counting machines because humans can vote and count ballots accurately by hand. But the public can't ordinarily watch the entire chain of custody of the ballot boxes, and can't watch the vote count in person, so both of those are valid instances where technology serves a useful role that can't be served any other way.

And before anyone raises an issue about the cost of all this: voting is the core of representative democracy, so it is worth investing the money to get it right. Anything less leaves doors open to election fraud, erodes public confidence in elections, and thereby erodes representative democracy itself.

G: I understand and I agree that would work. It is just a huge investment.

Counting machines would in theory be more accurate, faster, and cheaper than human counting.

This is pragmatically important because the eVoting proponents will argue that their method saves money, and ultimately the method that saves money will be chosen even it is terrible. So counting machines have a place, but only backed up by verification and frequent hand counts.

But installing cameras everywhere is a good idea.