Friday, November 24, 2006

Krugman way off base on Alec Yasinsac

This morning, Paul Krugman has an Op-Ed in the New York Times titled When Votes Disappear. Normally I would be very pleased to read such an op-ed, and I was today as well, until I got two thirds of the way down and saw this:

    "Although state officials have certified Mr. Buchanan as the victor, they’ve promised an audit of the voting machines. But don’t get your hopes up: as in 2000, state election officials aren’t even trying to look impartial. To oversee the audit, the state has chosen as its “independent” expert Prof. Alec Yasinsac of Florida State University — a Republican partisan who made an appearance on the steps of the Florida Supreme Court during the 2000 recount battle wearing a 'Bush Won' sign."

I almost fell out of my chair when I read that. Now, I was one of the first people to criticize the use partisan officials to administer elections, such as Ken Blackwell who while he was the secretary of state of Ohio was also co-chair of President Bush's reelection campaign in that state. But, what a different perspective it gives when you know the full story, as I do with Alec Yasinsac.

The Security and Assurance in Information Technology Laboratory (SAIT) at Florida State is the best security research group in the state of Florida if not the Southeast. I'm quite familiar with their research. The professors there include Breno de Medeiros, a recent Ph.D. alumnus of our program at Johns Hopkins, Mike Bermester, a famous Cryptographer, and of course Alec Yasinsac. I have known Alec for about 12 years. He is an extremely talented researcher and well respected security expert. The state of Florida contacted SAIT because they are the top computer security research group in the state. As soon as they were contacted, Alec Yasinsac called me with several other members of their lab on the phone because he was concerned that his Republican affiliation was being blown out of proportion by the local press. I understood his concern, but also noted that he is part of a whole group there, and that I believed they should perform this security audit. I also know that this group has recruited outside help from notables such as David Jefferson and Princeton Professor Ed Felten, who I believe are both involved in the audit, and are completely nonpartisan in their work.

I know very well that the SAIT group, including Alec, are only interested in finding out the truth and discovering what happened with the voting machines, if it is at all possible to do so. Hearing a high profile columnist such as Krugman refer to my friend Alec Yasinsac as a partisan hack really stings, and it causes me to now question every time I see someone painted with such a brush in the media. Furthermore, Krugman writes his pieces as though Alec would be performing the audit alone. What a difference it makes to actually know the people involved very well. Krugman would have done well to interview some computer scientists about Alec and SAIT before dismissing this audit out of hand. Sadly, I think this incident illustrates that this columnist is willing to embrace whatever circumstances and appearances serve his message with no regard for whether they are legitimate.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Worst Case Scenario for a midterm election?

In several recent elections, the eyes of the country fell on one particular jurisdiction that came under the microscope and affected the entire nation. In 2000, it was Florida and hanging chads. In 2004 it was Ohio and long lines, and in 2006 it is shaping up to be Virginia and a single race that will determine which party controls the senate. Every article I have read today states that the race is going to come down to a recount.

Uh oh.

Virginia uses a plethora of different voting technologies. Just about every major vendor is represented. Most of votes in that state were cast on paperless DREs. There are no ballots to recount. A meaningful recount in Virginia is not possible.

The DRE vendors like to pretend that they can perform recounts. They take the vote totals on the machines and print corresponding ballots, and then count them by hand. Let me give an analogy to demonstrate how silly that is. It would be comical if vendors weren't actually doing it and convincing people that they were performing a recount.

Imagine if you had a word document on your computer, and the document stated some fact. You were not sure if the fact was true. So, to verify the fact, you print the word document, and then you read it out loud and say, "Ah, if that's what it says, then it must be true because I'm looking at a printout." What the vendors are doing is printing out the questionable results and then counting them. Of course they are going to match what was on the machine, but they do not provide an independent count. The so-called recounts of DREs are really just print and count, not RE-count. It is a waste of time.

Now, we hear that in Sarasota County, there were 18,000 undervotes in the race for the 13th congressional seat. The race is expected to be decided by fewer than 400 votes. If paper ballots had been used, the huge number of undervotes could be investigated. Without them, there is no recourse - no way to figure out why this happened. I have several theories. Perhaps that many people just did not care about that race. Unlikely in my opinion. Most likely is that the human interface, that is, candidate placement on the ballot caused many people to miss that race. The next possibility is that a software glitch caused votes in that race not to be counted. Finally, it is possible that someone actually did something to cause this. The problem with paperless voting is that we'll never know, and there will never be any way to find out.

It is unbelievable that the control of the US senate is coming down to a close race that cannot be recounted, and for which there are no physical ballots. The vendors may come out with their "emperor's clothes" recounts, but the public should understand that these are not really recounts, they are just print and count.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

My Day at the Polls - Maryland General Election 2006

I woke up at 4:30 this morning, although the alarm was set for 5:15. I guess I had a lot of adrenalin pumping about the election. Would it be a total meltdown? Would the e-poll books work? Would the voting machines boot up playing cartoon videos on the screen, or would they appear to work fine? Last night, I went into the precinct after work to help set up the voting machines. We spent about an hour and a half figuring out the best way to configure them and the best way to process the voters, assuming we had long lines like we did in the primary. That saved us a lot of time, and I believe is the only reason we were able to open the polls on time this morning. But, I think that getting started the night before is what triggered the adrenalin rush that caused me to get so little sleep. I am pretty certain that the machines stayed in the synagogue great room unattended overnight.

For the most part things went fine in our precinct. Turnout was extremely high, and we had long lines at times, but I don't believe anybody left without voting due to that. We averted several problems that could have been serious due to the diligence and foresight of our excellent chief judges and the rest of the poll workers. For example, one of our chief judges discovered during the day that we were short two tamper tape seals, which would have caused us to be unable to properly seal two of the voting machines when we closed the polls. She discovered this because she was checking and double checking everything throughout the day. She placed a call to the board of elections, and they sent us the missing tamper seals. Here's another example: When voters check in, there is a voter authority card printed that has the voter's name and party affiliation on it, and which the voters sign. This paper is then put in an envelope on the machine that the voter uses. We we running out of paper, and when one of the printers could not print anymore, we shut down that poll book temporarily, and one of our judges rushed off to another precinct to get some paper for the e-poll book printer. Then, we were able to reopen that e-poll book. We laughed when we discovered 4 extra rolls of paper in one of our boxes at the end of the election. We had just missed them earlier.

The judge who went to the other precinct to get the paper reported that the other precinct had only two voting machines there, and that one of them had died after around 75 votes had been cast on it. That machine was taken out of service and sent to the nearby town of Towson, where presumably the internal flash of the machine would be used to recover those votes. Meanwhile, another voting machine was supposed to be delivered to replace it. I never found out if that happened.

In the early goings, about the most dramatic thing that happened in our precinct was that a woman thought she dropped her hearing aid into one of the machines and insisted that we take it apart to try to recover it. Luckily, it was found nearby on the floor. As to our technical support, once again, as in the primary, our technician was a representative from Diebold who had been hired the day before, and who was servicing three precincts. I saw her from time to time during the day, but as far as I could tell, she really did not have much to do. She was not allowed to touch the machines.

I was impressed with the performance of the e-poll books that failed so miserably in our primary. In our precinct, they worked flawlessly. I observed them very carefully. One test I did was when a couple split up and the husband checked in on my e-poll book, while his wife checked in on the one at another table. The instant that the wife was checked in, she appeared as having voted on my e-poll book. I repeated this test several times. We ran three e-poll books, and I watched them in many different situations throughout the day, and I did not find a single problem. In fact, as a poll worker, I can say that they were quite handy, especially when people came in who were in the wrong precinct, and we were able to tell them where to go because we had the whole state's database on each e-poll book. I still feel that I would prefer a paper card check in system because of fear of how stuck we would be if the power went out, or if the machines failed in an unexpected way. But, with a simple augmentation to our procedures, I would be happy to use these poll books. The modification I would make would be for the check in judges to also have a printed booklet of all the registered voters, sorted in alphabetical order. It would only have to have names, and say, birth dates (to make duplicates unlikely). The judges would have to place a check mark next to each voter's name as they voted. Thus, if the e-poll books worked fine, the burden would be rather small. If they failed in the middle of the election, we would have 3 booklets with sorted lists of who had voted, and we could continue checking in voters with the booklets, making sure nobody checked in more than once. It would be enough of a backup system to make me happy, and under those circumstances, I would support using the e-poll books. (The privacy issues about whether it is a good idea to have so many electronic copies of this database out there is another story. It's important, but I will not address it here because I'm exhausted, and I have a lot of other things to say about our election today.)

I was on a media black out while at the polls, and I just returned home a few minutes ago, so I have no idea what happened in the rest of the country, or in the rest of Maryland today. I can say that in my precinct we only had one serious event with the Diebold voting machines. It happened after we had already closed the polls, and the last few voters who were in line when we closed the doors at 8 pm were voting. This occurrence underscored my biggest concerns and fears about these machines. Before I describe this problem, let me talk about one aspect of my day at the polls. After the primary in September, I wrote a blog entry like this one about my day at the polls. Many of my fellow judges that day eventually read that blog entry, and between that day and today, I have been in the local media in Baltimore quite a bit, appearing on radio shows almost daily, and several times on many days, and appearing on local television a few times a week. By the time our election came around today, my position on e-voting was pretty well known to my fellow judges and to many of the voters who came into the precinct today. As a result, several of the other judges, and quite a few voters commented to me that they were going to read my blog entry tonight; it was a given that I would blog about it. Knowing that I was going to write this, and that many people were going to read it, made people pretty careful to include me in every discussion about issues that came up, and to make sure every single aspect of our election was by the book, which I don't think is the way the majority of precincts are run, based on emails I've received from many election judges in other precincts after the last several elections.

So, while we were watching the last handful of voters cast their ballots (oops, I should say "touch their candidates names on a screen" because we don't use ballots in Maryland, except for absentee and provisional), one of the chief judges came up to me and said that there was a "situation". I was called over where a voter was explaining to one of the judges what had happened, and he repeated his story to me. The voter had made his selections and pressed the "cast ballot" button on the machine. The machine spit out his smartcard, as it is supposed to do, but his summary screen remained, and it did not appear that his vote had been cast. So, he pushed the smartcard back in, and it came out saying that he had already voted. But, he was still in the screen that showed he was in the process of voting. The voter then pressed the "cast ballot" again, and an error message appeared on the screen that said that he needs to call a judge for assistance. The voter was very patient, but was clearly taking this very seriously, as one would expect. After discussing the details about what happened with him very carefully, I believed that there was a glitch with his machine, and that it was in an unexpected state after it spit out the smartcard. The question we had to figure out was whether or not his vote had been recorded. The machine said that there had been 145 votes cast. So, I suggested that we count the voter authority cards in the envelope attached to the machine. Since we were grouping them into bundles of 25 throughout the day, that was pretty easy, and we found that there were 146 authority cards. So, this meant that either his vote had not been counted, or that the count was off for some other reason. Considering that the count on that machine had been perfect all day, I thought that the most likely thing is that this glitch had caused his vote not to count. Unfortunately, because while this was going on, all the other voters had left, other election judges had taken down and put away the e-poll books, and we had no way to encode a smartcard for him. We were left with the possibility of having the voter vote on a provisional ballot, which is what he did. He was gracious, and understood our predicament.

The thing is, that I don't know for sure now if this voter's vote will be counted once or twice (or not at all if the board of election rejects his provisional ballot). In fact, the purpose of counting the voter authority cards is to check the counts on the machines hourly. What we had done was to use the number of cards to conclude something about whether a particular voter had voted, and that is not information that these cards can provide. Unfortunately, I believe there are an unimaginable number of problems that could crop up with these machines where we would not know for sure if a voter's vote had been recorded, and the machines provide no way to check on such questions. If we had paper ballots that were counted by optical scanners, this kind of situation could never occur.

Some conclusions now before I go off to bed. I believe that with proper care, diligent following of procedures, and no unexpected computer or power glitches, there is the possibility that an election in Maryland can run smoothly in a given precinct. We will never know if the results produced by the machines are an accurate tally of the votes that were cast. Did we get it right today in my precinct? It's very possible. The results were consistent with the expected outcome based on our demographics. The only surprise was that Republican Governor Ehrlich beat out Democratic Mayor O'Malley in the governor's race by about 14% of the vote. This was surprising because our precinct voted 2-1 or more for Democrats in all other races, and the precinct is known for having that ratio. Still, I think that the governor's race results are not unrealistic given conversations I've had with democrats who were going to vote for him. But here's the rub. We cannot audit our election. We cannot perform a recount. We cannot see how the votes were really counted. We had election observers in our precinct, and they had nothing to observe, except to write down the final tallies when the outcome was computed.

So, the election is finally over. In the morning, we'll probably have many results across the country and some places where the races are too close to call. In Maryland there are still over 180,000 absentee ballots that need to be counted. All around America, poll workers such as myself are going to sleep now, exhausted after working at least 16 hours as volunteers, putting in this day so that we can continue to enjoy the benefits of democracy. Now its time for partisans to put aside their differences and to figure out how to design better voting systems that can be independently audited, that are not too vulnerable to failures and human error, and that are completely transparent to voters in every way. In Maryland, the pendulum has swung far away from such systems, and I am hopeful and optimistic that we will switch to a precinct-count optical scan paper ballot system with random spot audits before the elections in 2008.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Advice to Voters on November 7

Well, tomorrow is Election Day, and 39% of voters will be casting their votes on electronic voting machines, and the vast majority of votes in the US will be counted by electronic equipment. While I do not believe that there is any reason to have confidence in the fully electronic paperless voting machines used in Maryland and in many other places, I still think that the only way to make sure your vote is not counted is not to vote. So, I suggest that everybody who is registered to vote, get out and vote! Here are my suggestions to voters:

  1. Check your voter registration card and sample ballot that you hopefully received in the mail to make sure you know where your polling place is. You would be surprised at how many people go to the wrong precinct. Show up during the non-rush hours if you can. The slowest times are probably between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
  2. Check your summary screens carefully. There have been reports in Florida and Texas of summary screens presenting different candidates from the ones chosen by the voters. Furthermore, there have been reports of certain races not appearing at all in the summary screens, despite voters casting votes. Finally, there are reports of e-voting machines in Virginia truncating the names of candidates on the summary screen. If you find any discrepancy, report it immediately to the poll workers and don't leave the polls without getting to a summary screen that represents exactly how you want to vote.
  3. Consider yourself to be a poll watcher during you time at the polls. Be vigilant of the behavior of other voters and the poll workers. Make sure nobody is loitering around any of the equipment. Feel free to ask the poll workers about security procedures. If you see any suspicious activity, report it immediately to the chief judge in the precinct and call the local board of elections.
  4. Sign up for Verified Voting's Election Transparency Project. They provide a toolkit for election observation.
  5. Read up on the equipment used in your precinct before you vote. There is an excellent resource for that on the EFF web site.
  6. If you experience any problem at the polls, call the Election Protection Hotline at (866) OUR-VOTE.

Let's hope that this election runs as smoothly as possible. Hopefully, in 2008, the momentum will shift away from paperless voting, and we'll be able to verify the outcomes of our future elections.