My Voting Machine Design

Actually, I'd be perfectly content with optical scanners since their error rate is quite low, and they have been in use for a long time. Another advantage of scanners is that they don't have to be working in order to vote, all the voter needs is a pen to mark the ballot (a cheap enough device to have lots of spares on hand in case one breaks down :-). The scanners only need to be working to give the rabid news media the instant feedback they can't seem to live without. If a few scanners break down, it just takes a while longer to total the vote.

However, none of that seems to be able to convince elections supervisors that scanners are the way to go, so if we can't have scanners, let's see if we can't devise a sensible electronic voting system people can trust.

Speaking of trusting machines, here is page 229 from my 1968 paperback copy of Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Among the many other predictions of this visionary science fiction writer, you can see he also predicted electronic voting fraud.

There is very little about the following design that I'd consider original, but it does serve to indicate the direction we could go to increase confidence that the system works right.

My design has two machines. One prints ballots, the other accepts the printed ballots. Here's how the voting process works:

  • You identify yourself at the poll, just like always and just like today's touchscreen machines, you are given a card to unlock a machine and allow you to vote.

  • You pick a machine at random, and now things get a little different. You insert your card to start voting. To avoid any bias in ordering of layout, each race or amendment or whatever appears on one screen by itself. No mixing of multiple races on the same screen where one could go unnoticed.

  • With one screen per item, we can randomly order the items on the screens. You might get dog catcher first, you might get President first. While we are randomly ordering the issues to vote on, we also randomly order the choices within each election. No more bias for first on the list or last on the list.

  • When you have completed voting, the machine prints a paper ballot and spits your key card back out. The paper ballot has human readable text saying how you voted, as well as machine scannable barcodes (or something like them) with the same information along with a digital signature which proves the ballot was printed by an official voting machine.

  • You now take your ballot and your key card to one of two ballot boxes. One is painted bright read and has the word OOPS! on it in big, unmistakable, letters. This is the machine you go to if your printed ballot is wrong. It collects the ballot and your key card, verifies that the ballot has a valid digital signature (and isn't some bogus item someone printed themselves). It deposits the ballot in the incorrect vote box, resets your key card so you can try again, and spits the key card back out.

  • When you find your ballot is correct, you take it to the other machine which is painted green instead of red and has the word VOTE on it in big letters. It also accepts the ballot and the key card and verifies the digital signature, but it deposits the ballot in valid vote box and keeps the key cards (which are collected and reused during the day).

  • At the end of the day, the printer machines have a record of all the ballots they printed, and the OOPS and VOTE machines have a record of all the ballots they collected. These totals had better match.

  • Early results can be obtained easily by the totals scanned in on the VOTE machines. These await certification following the check of all the totals and a manual audit of a random sampling of the ballots to verify that the human readable printout matches the machine scanned results.

  • In the event of a recount, the human readable ballots are the last word. They are the votes the individual voters had a chance to examine and are as close to voter intent as you can get.

In addition to the procedures described above, the machines themselves need to operate with a strictly write-once media such as CD-R to record operations during the day and to boot the software initially. The CDR disks need to be digitally signed by the election supervisors office when preparing the initial content to run the machines, and signed by the machines themselves each time new information is recorded. With media that can't be accidentally erased or modified without detection, the results are much more likely to be accurate without resorting to counting the ballots by hand.

Once some folks with a lot more expertise than me improve on this design, I might be willing to trust it. I'd already trust it a lot more than the completely wide open "just trust us" touch screens we have today.

Having said all that, I'd still rather have optical scanners for the simplicity of pen and paper. Electronics always breakdown, usually at the most inconvenient times. With scanners, the election process is not at the mercy of finicky electronic equipment.

If we must have fancy electronic voting machines, we could at least get some additional benefit from them: I already mentioned randomizing the order of names and races for each voter. Another huge benefit would be the ability to eradicate all primary elections and all controversy about who should be able to vote in which primary.

It would be simplicity itself to enhance the electronic machines to allow you to arrange the candidates you'd be willing to vote for in preference order, so the primary and the general election could happen all at once. Just keep chucking out the candidate with the smallest total, and transferring his votes to the other candidates according to the voters preferences. Eventually you'll have the winner who the most voters expressed some measure of tolerance for :-).

And, of course, the biggest benefit of eradicating primaries would be eradicating the magnified voice the looney fringes (or "base" as they like to call it) have on the choice of candidates. Heck, after a few primary free elections, we might actually have a government of moderates dedicated to working together.

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Page last modified Tue Dec 26 01:08:35 2006