Counting Your Vote

In Florida, there has been an ongoing problem with our voting system ever since the 2000 presidential election. It seems the first attempt to fix this was the proliferation of electronic voting systems that would ostensibly eliminate the questionable punch-card results. While we should be able to avoid the dreaded hanging chad, it appears Congress wants to augment the Help America Vote Act to require some kind of paper trail.

The argument is that electronic voting machines could be sabotaged and there would be no way to render a re-count. At the moment, HR811 is the strongest contender for mandating this update nationwide. According to this bill, all paperless voting systems will require a paper trail that can be used to audit election results.

Is this really going to help? We had a paper trail with the punch-card voting machines but the inaccuracy of the punched cards prevented a recount. Using a slightly more advanced optical scanning technology may help this process but there are going to be inaccuracies in the re-reading of votes using the optical machines.

If our government really wants to help the voting process, they should begin by establishing electronic standards for voting systems. All voting machines must be able to communicate using a documented API, this can be as simple as a web service call or some other method of RPC invokation. The voting data can be secured using encryption rather than the current levels of limited obfuscation provided by proprietary technology.

After the communication standards are established, it should then be mandatory that every electronic voting system be capable of communicating with a secondary system for the purpose of auditing the results. This mitigates the risk as it relates to tampering and provides a verifable voting record from a secondary system in case the primary system is defective or has otherwise malfunctioned. Since the entire process takes advantage of a documented communication mechanism, it would even be possible to have third level audit systems capable of triple checking voting results.

Certainly an audit trail is a good thing for our electronic voting systems but don’t make this a paper process. We already know the task of digitizing a paper trail is fraught with errors, let’s instead establish electronic voting standards and build redundant systems that can be used to verify the voting records electronically.