THE MAGAZINE

Machine Politics

By Laura Spadanuta
Several other safeguards were adopted as well, according to Scanlan. One is to test the scanner memory cards after they have been programmed to see if they are tallying votes correctly; another is to seal the cards with tamper-evident seals so that it will be apparent if someone tampers with the memory card before the election. Town clerks are responsible for keeping logs on when the machines are sealed.

Imperfect ballots.
It must be noted that there are other problems with paper ballots. Ballot format is still left up to the states, even in federal elections, says Jefferson. And while the butterfly ballots and punch cards that caused so much trouble have disappeared since the 2000 election, Jefferson says concerns remain with ballot design.

“There are still misleading ballot formats on printed paper ballots or on the screens of electronic voting machines. The human interface to paper and electronic voting systems has not been given much serious attention, and there have been recent horror stories as bad as those of the butterfly ballot (although no presidential election hung in the balance),” he says.

Many, including Jefferson, have written studies stating that poor ballot design likely leads to confusion and undercounting of votes. This can happen even in electronic voting, as was the case in the 2006 Sarasota congressional election.

Auditing. Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, says one of the major improvements in voting over the last four years is that more states are doing post-election audits. To be able to do an audit, there has to be a paper trail, however. To that end, several states passed laws that require them to get voter-marked paper ballot systems. Others stipulate that the states can no longer buy paperless touchscreen voting machines when the time comes to replace their current systems. “They can only replace them with a voter-marked paper ballot system,” says Smith.

Auditing can be a challenge even with paper records, however. “In particular, when you have an electronic count, there is not usually an easy way to take a random electronic ballot and then find the corresponding paper ballot,” says Jefferson. It would help if the systems were modified to make that step easier, he says.

Verified Voting wants states to start using risk limiting audits. This involves using a specific statistical approach developed by University of California-Berkeley statistics professor Philip B. Stark to calculate how many ballots (or how many precincts worth of ballots) must be recounted to give a reasonable assurance that the election is accurate, says Smith. The process has been endorsed by numerous academics and voting officials. It is an alternative to just taking a look at a flat percentage of voting systems or precincts or doing a full manual recount.

Stark says the approach provides a way to be confident that, even if there are errors, the contest has been decided the right way. And if not, the audit can correct that. The way it does that is as you are counting ballots by hand, you start to gather evidence about the outcome. “And when you have really strong evidence that the outcome is right, you stop counting. If you never get strong evidence that the outcome is right, you keep counting until you’ve counted everything,” says Stark. So, you could have to count all the votes by hand, but often, you’ll have to count far fewer if you find that you have a very low margin of error. Stark says evidence is accumulated until the evidence is strong enough, or everything is counted.

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