24 September 2003

Salon.com Technology | An open invitation to election fraud

SALON: But one of the problems with optical-scan ballots is that you have to print up a lot of paper -- and, you know, if this election is postponed until March, a lot of the counties are going to have huge bills because they have to print new ballots.

HARRIS: Oh, goodness! I hadn't thought of that. Huge, huge bills, completely wasted.

SALON: So isn't that an argument for touch-screen voting?

HARRIS: I think the touch screens, if they had a paper trail so that we could do a proper audit, they would be my choice. The thing is if you speak Chinese, they can print something in Chinese. There would be no reason for all these combinations of ballots that folks have. It's kind of a nightmare which would be solved with the touch screens that can print.

SALON: Yes, I imagine that's one of the main selling points for touch-screen machines.

HARRIS: I would think so. It's just that they're not auditable. I'm not opposed to it, and I think it has tremendous advantages, but it just needs to be auditable. That's a deal-breaker -- it has to be auditable. And why I've been so down on Diebold is because they're the poster child for why it has to be auditable.

Strangely enough John Stuart Mill gave the solution to this problem in On representative government:

The most serious, in appearance, of the objections may be the most briefly answered; the assumed impossibility of guarding against fraud, or suspicion of fraud, in the operations of the Central Office. Publicity, and complete liberty of inspecting the voting papers after the election, were the securities provided; but these, it is maintained, would be unavailing; because, to check the returns, a voter would have to go over all the work that had been done by the staff of clerks. This would be a very weighty objection, if there were any necessity that the returns should be verified individually by every voter. All that a simple voter could be expected to do in the way of verification would be to check the use made of his own voting paper; for which purpose every paper would be returned, after a proper interval, to the place from whence it came. But what he could not do would be done for him by the unsuccessful candidates and their agents. Those among the defeated who thought that they ought to have been returned would, singly or a number together, employ an agency for verifying the process of the election; and if they detected material error, the documents would be referred to a Committee of the House of Commons, by whom the entire electoral operations of the nation would be examined and verified, at a tenth part the expense of time and money necessary for the scrutiny of a single return before an Election Committee under the system now in force.

All that's needed is to give each voter a certified copy of their ballot that they can carry away. If there's any variance between the official tally and the certified copies it will show up quite quickly. It would even be possible (assuming a unique number with adequate security) to check individual ballots for their accuracy.

The ACT is investigating electronic voting. It's a rah rah project. I suspect Australia will have similar problems sometime soon.

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