Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Diebold voting machine malfunctions during chief judge retraining

Maryland is providing additional training to chief judges for the November 7 election. Here is an excerpt from an email I received yesterday from one of the two chief judges from my precinct during the primary, and who will serve as chief judge again in the general election (posting this with her permission).

    "I wish you could have been with [us] on Saturday when we 'retrained'. There was a Diebold representative there demonstrating the machine and guess what. It malfunctioned! Nothing too bad though. She was trying to cancel the ballot and the machine said it had been inactive and started to shut down."

I think this is worrisome, and I believe that what happened here is that in the chief judge retraining, they carried out scenarios that are not the most expected ones during an election. While the testing that is conducted on the machines during certification and as part of logic and accuracy testing probably covers most of the likely, expected cases, I doubt that something like canceling a ballot in administrator mode gets much test coverage. I think we'll see problems on election day with voting system features that are on the fringes. In Computer Science, boundary conditions are notorious for containing unexpected bugs, and it's scary to think that these can result in the voting machines malfunctioning and shutting down.

This is one of the reasons that I'm nervous about the e-poll books as well as the voting machines. The state says that the e-poll books were tested after the recent bug fixes, but there is no way that any amount of testing can simulate the stress on the system that a real election with hundreds of busy precincts will put on the system. Whenever there is an unusual case, then the system will be running in a state and executing code that was probably not subjected to testing. I don't think that the state elections administrators understand this. It is a bad idea to deploy a buggy system that is patched so close to an actual election. Even if the paper check-in cards are provided as a backup, there will be no way to switch to them if the e-poll books fail during the day because it would take hours to figure out who already voted.