A Secure and Accurate Voting System

Given they rapidly evolving and seemingly unpredictable recall election in California, it would not be surprising if the election results are close. Ever eager to yank sympathetic courts into the election process, Democrats are already raising funds for a potential legal challenge in California. Perhaps now, before the heat of the post-election recriminations, is a good time to examine the issue of election procedures in general. There are at least three features one would expect from voting procedures. In order of priority they are: auditability, user friendliness, and rapid availability of results.

It should always be possible to recount individual original ballots. The most common way to do this, of course, is to use hand-marked paper ballots that are hand counted. While it may be possible to make such ballots easy to fill out, there will always remain the issue of ballot interpretation. On a hand-completed ballot, some people will invariably select two candidates for the same office and save for the most rabid of Florida Democrats there is no fair way to intuit which candidate the person really intended to vote for. Others will select a single candidate, but make their marks (whether by checking a box or punching a hole in a card) so lightly that frail and sometimes biased human judgment will be required to interpret the ballot.

Some jurisdictions use mechanical voting machines or touch screen computers for balloting. However, most of these systems do not provide individual vote accountability. With voting machines, votes can only be tracked down to the voting machine level. It is difficult to determine if there is tampering and if there is, all the votes for a machine must be discarded. As for touch screen computers, Salon magazine has recently suggested that it is far too easy to hack into such systems and make untraceable changes to vote totals. Even if safeguards are improved, there is no individual vote traceability to confirm a result if a question of machine security arises. One popular system uses Microsoft Access as its database and Microsoft products have never been renowned for their airtight computer security.

On the other hand, mechanical voting machines and computer touch screens can be made very user friendly. The letters can be very large and voters can be warned against and stopped from voting for more than one candidate. Moreover, there is no ambiguity in any particular vote.

Americans are an impatient people and we want are election results now. Of course, a network of touch screen computer system offers the prospect of the most rapid election returns. If security could be guaranteed, networked touch screen computer systems could provide results almost instantaneously.

The following voting system would meet all three requirements we have imposed. First, use touch screen computer systems for their user friendliness and rapid reporting ability. Second, establish a non-partisan computer security authority that would certify the general security of such systems and their networking. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, have each voting machine produce a paper version of each ballot. The paper version would have a time-tagged human readable listing of an individual’s results so that it could be verify by the voter. In addition, this paper ballot would also include a computer readable (perhaps a bar code) listing of a voter’s selections so that votes could be unambiguously recounted in a timely manner. There should never be a need for a recount, but should a recount be ordered, each iteration should produce precisely the same count each time.

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