Are American elections fixed?
April 4, 2003 8:31 AM   Subscribe

Are American elections fixed? This article discusses the possibility, particularly due to the influx of computer touch-screen voting. While the tilt of the writer is obvious, many valid points are raised. Whatever your affiliation, how can one be comfortable with computer voting? "It doesn't matter who casts the ballots. What matters is who counts the ballots."
posted by eas98 (28 comments total)
What bothers me the most, and what I understand the least, is the total lack of a physical record of the vote.

Without that, there is almost no ability to challenge or check the results spit out by the computer.

At the very least, how come a reciept is not generated after the vote, which could perhaps be stored for verification purposes if needed.

Very troubling..
posted by eas98 at 8:35 AM on April 4, 2003

""This article"" could use an ""editor"".
posted by goethean at 8:46 AM on April 4, 2003

It's really not hard, given current cryptographic methods, to have computer based voting that's more secure (to say nothing of reliability) than voting with punched paper cards. It's basically a fairly standard anonymous money system, as described by Schneier and many others.

Also, vote fixing isn't exactly new. How can you trust the paper cards handed in by people who supervise voting? At some point, you simply have to decide to trust somebody.

This article is just FUD.
posted by atbash at 8:51 AM on April 4, 2003

Providing accountability in an anonymous framework can be notoriously difficult.

Eas98: Why would those receipts be any more credible than a fudged vote recorded by a machine? "Let's see, one vote for a democrat, I'll save that as a republican, and now I'll print out that democrat receipt."

What would be needed is a 3rd party machine that could interface with the voting machine, verify that a vote was made and receive and retain a receipt that would be verified as well.

Of course, there will be flaws in this system, and things I've overlooked. You get an idea of the complexity.
posted by jon_kill at 8:54 AM on April 4, 2003

While I agree that this article is poorly written, the fact of the matter is that most electronic voting software is poorly written, and creates voting records that cannot be reliably audited.

Rebecca Mercuri is one of the primary experts in the field of electronic voting security, and you can read what she has to say on this website. If you read that website, or if you read RISKS, you're probably aware that while electronic voting COULD be made to be more tamper-proof than ballots, that has not been done.

If you wanted to overthrow the government in less than twenty years, I would suggest that you find some very competent computer programmers, and have them get jobs working at Microsoft, QNX, and Wind River. From that point, they should express an interest in maintaining old, boring code that nobody else wants to deal with, with a particular edge towards getting access to the window management code.

Once access to the window management code is accessible, then they need to add hooks in to look for words like 'Democrat' and 'Republican' along with common office names, on buttons. If any of the likely combinations of elements show up, and the date is election day, and the application has been running long enough that it is probably not being tested, then for some percentage of the users, reverse the text of the candidate names and parties.

This is, unfortunately, an entirely feasible method which would likely subvert enough of the future electronic voting machines to control the results of an election. It could be avoided if the voting machine manufacturers actually had well-designed auditing, but right now nobody is requiring that.

In fact, there are already some well-documented cases of electronic voting machines which reversed candidate counts, and other such "impossible" errors.
posted by mosch at 9:14 AM on April 4, 2003

Does the US have some kind of Electoral Reform Society as we have in the UK? Essentially a non-partisan group which concerns itself with free and respresentative elections. To be honest I thought they had a bit more offical standing then they do until I googled for this link (Metafilter: learning through doing) but they are held in some regard as being impartial in these issues and certainly had some oversight over the first London mayoral elections which (IIRC) were the first big machine counted election in England, as well as overseeing things like postal trade union elections. Having been involved in the electronic count in London myself, I know that all the electronically counted votes were sampled as a check on the machines throughout the count. It does seem odd that there doesn't seem to be oversight in some of the US elections that have been discussed on MeFi (at least this is the impression I get).

You get an idea of the complexity.

Again from a UK perspective, would it be possible for the US to go over to a simple 'draw a X in a box' system as in the UK? This has drawbacks (eg, in the UK they can trace you back if they want too, and this has been done in the past to track 'radicals') but seems to have advantages too.
posted by biffa at 9:18 AM on April 4, 2003

atbash, you're saying that computer based voting can be made secure, and although you didn't say it, independently verifiable. This is true. What the article is saying is that the machines and the way they are used now now are not independently verifiable. How is this FUD?

And you say that at some point you have to trust somebody. The author says that too. But trust the vendor of the machines, and only them, with no independent auditing commission? When the vendors are themselves political, and major campaign contributors? And even if they were not, without any independent oversight and scrutiny, how likely are they to admit to errors, either through defects in the system or human failures in retrieving the results?

This is not what democracy looks like.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:21 AM on April 4, 2003

A reliable audit system is simple. When you complete your touchscreen selections a paper copy is printed out behind a glass window for your verification. If you accept, the paper copy drops into a storage bin. The number of paper ballots should match the computer total and the number of voters registered by the poll workers. In most cases the computer vote count is instantly available when polls close, but the paper ballots could be checked against the computer tally if a recount is required because of a close vote or suspected fraud.

There is no way to completely eliminate the possibility of fraud but to allow an unaudited voting system to be controlled by invisible software written by private contractors is ridiculous.
posted by JackFlash at 9:22 AM on April 4, 2003

Or, better yet, separate the counting machine from the ballot maker.

The ballot maker is there only to help you create a readable, valid ballot. Once you've voted, it prints a very readable, very obvious ballot, in nice OCR characters that both you and the computer counter can read. Then, you read it. "Hey, wait, I didn't want to vote for George Clinton." (okay, some people are hopelessly defunked.) So, you tear it up (crosscut shredder would be handy) and do it again.

Once done, you feed the ballot into the scanner, which counts it, then delivers the marked paper ballot to a locked box, in case of recounts. In the case of a recount, the computer counting system is not used. Period. Recounts, if needed, are done by hand, using the perfectly readable ballots.

This isn't hard to design. This is hard to (not impossible, mind you) subvert. This is trivial technology. You don't need crypto. You don't want crypto. The only thing you want hidden is who voted what. The identically printed ballots do that. Everything else about that ballot must remain in the clear. Period.

The machines are the voters -- the voters are. This is critical. They are printers and counters, so, in the end, you can go back to the paper record -- which each individual voter can read (unlike punch-out systems) so that they know who they voted for.

It's not hard. The fact that it's not being done this way is scaring me. The current proposed systems are designed to make vote fraud trivial and uncorrectable. If you see them, demand a write-in ballot, and use that -- it is much harder for them to "miscount" a properly filled out write in ballot than it is for them to "miscount" a touch screen press.
posted by eriko at 9:37 AM on April 4, 2003

Elections are fixed if your guy loses.
posted by fried at 9:38 AM on April 4, 2003

Yet another topic I'm fascinated by but have no time to learn about. The blogger's dilemma. If you ask me, it's the two-party system and the apathy of the electorate that makes a poll-ocratic mockery of our elections, not the technology. In Brazil, you get fined if you don't vote — that has its drawbacks as well, some say — and runoffs are held when a candidate fails to achieve an outright plurality. None of this gerrymandered electoral college bullshit. In Italy, 92.5 percent of eligible voters vote, compared with 54.7 percent in the 2000 general election here. In Australia (84.5 percent) they use the single transferable vote system, in which you rank candidates in order of preference, and voting is compulsory. [source]. Here's Lorie Cranor's summary of alternative alternative voting systems and news on the metaelection front.
posted by hairyeyeball at 9:39 AM on April 4, 2003

Sorry, Lorrie's page is on e-voting. Here's a brief rundown on alternative election systems. Here's a full Poindexter version.
posted by hairyeyeball at 9:48 AM on April 4, 2003

Elections are fixed if your guy loses.

Exactly why you need to make sure you know how to run the election fairly before the election.
posted by biffa at 9:57 AM on April 4, 2003

Honestly, I think the method of voting we use is a bigger problem. We measure the percentage of people who most want a particular candidate, instead of measuring the percentage of people who would willingly accept a particular candidate.

Take for instance the 2000 election. There are people who voted for Buchanan, who would have also accepted Bush, but not Gore. There are also people who voted for Nader who would have accepted Gore, but not Bush. If we all accepted a list of acceptable candidates, we'd end up with the person who was most liveable, rather than the person who was most favorable to the largest minority.

If you took the current two-party system and extended it to have say, six legitimate parties, it would quickly become clear why our current system is flawed. It would be possible for a candidate who only 20% of the populous can tolerate to win the election, when there are surely other more moderate candidates who would be preferred by the general populous.

Anyway, enough with my off-topic rantings about election methodology.
posted by mosch at 11:39 AM on April 4, 2003

I make no claim to how accurate all the content is, but Black Box Voting is a fairly extensive site dedicated to these types of issues.
posted by sixdifferentways at 12:22 PM on April 4, 2003

If you want a piece by piece expose of how Bush fixed the Florida election, and how touch-screen voting can help fix future elections, read the New American edition of "The Best Democracy Money Can Buy," by Greg Palast.

Some details over at his website:
posted by Blue Stone at 12:28 PM on April 4, 2003

Links to related material:

Quietly Florida Admits 2000 Election Fraud
[AP April 26, 2002] - "MIAMI (AP) -- A federal judge has approved a settlement between Leon County and civil rights groups that sued over widespread voting problems in the 2000 presidential election in Florida. ...The state and six other counties remain in the case brought by the NAACP and four other groups who sued in a dispute that grew out of the long-uncertain results of Florida's vote for president. "

Greg Palast on US election fraud Palast has nearly made a career of studying this stuff, and has spun off a book and a couple of documentaries along the way. He keeps his facts straight too.

Lynn Landes has researched this issue (as deeply perhaps as Palast) - especially electronic voting (and possibilities of fraud thereby) in the US.

Florida May Destroy Ballots From 2000 Election
: Self explanatory, I think.

This Mefi post covered the Chuck Hagel story as well.""If you want to win the election," he finally said, "just control the machines." "Nebraska has a just-passed law that prohibits government-employee election workers from looking at the ballots, even in a recount. The only machines permitted to count votes in Nebraska, he said, are those made and programmed by the corporation formerly run by Hagel"

This piece, by Jerry Bowles, covers the Cuck Hagel/voting machine story in depth also.

2002 Elections: Republican Voting Machines, Election Irregularities, and "Way-Off" Polling Results
examines the discrepancy between pre-election predictions and the actual "results": ".... I called John Zogby of the highly respected Zogby International. I asked him if over the years he had noticed increased variation between pre-election predictions and election results.  Zogby said that he didn't notice any big problems until this year. Things were very different this time. ..."I blew Illinois. I blew Colorado (and Georgia). And never in my life did I get New Hampshire wrong...but I blew that too.""

"If you want to To Win An Election, Just Control The Voting Machines" by Thom Hartmann, from : "Back when Hagel first ran there for the U.S. Senate in 1996, his company's computer-controlled voting machines showed he'd won stunning upsets in both the primaries and the general election. The Washington Post (1/13/1997) said Hagel's "Senate victory against an incumbent Democratic governor was the major Republican upset in the November election." According to Bev Harris of, Hagel won virtually every demographic group, including many largely Black communities that had never before voted Republican. Hagel was the first Republican in 24 years to win a Senate seat in Nebraska. "

Suspicion Surrounds Voter News Service: [by Lynn Landes 1/20/03] "It doesn't add up. Why is Voter News Service (VNS) really going out of business? That's only one of many questions that dog VNS, a private consortium of the major news organizations that allegedly projected election night winners using exit polls. VNS is owned by ABC News, The Associated Press, CBS News, CNN, Fox News, and NBC News. But VNS has always conducted its operations in a highly secretive manner. ....I want to know why VNS sent surveys to counties asking them for information about the kinds of voting machines the counties used? Why should VNS care? What do voting machines have to do with exit poll projections? The voting machine industry is completely dominated by Republicans. Many people believe that the major news networks are also dominated by Republican ownership. Is there a connection between VNS closing its doors, the increased use of computerized voting machines, and the growing disparity between pre-election polling predictions and election results - a disparity that appears to heavily favor Republican candidates? Are we witnessing election fraud on a massive scale and is VNS involved?"

A Parable of the US 2000 Election
: "....1. Imagine that we read of an election occurring anywhere in the third world in which the self-declared winner was the son of the former prime minister and that former prime minister was himself the former head of that nation's secret police (CIA).

2. Imagine that the self-declared winner lost the popular vote but won based on some old colonial holdover (electoral college) from the nation's pre-democracy past.

3. Imagine that the self-declared winner's victory' turned on disputed votes cast in a province governed by his brother!

4. Imagine that the poorly drafted ballots of one district, a district heavily favoring the self-declared winner's opponent, led thousands of voters to vote for the wrong candidate.

5. Imagine that that members of that nation's most despised caste, fearing for their lives/livelihoods, turned out in record numbers to vote in near-universal opposition to the self-declared winner's candidacy...." [goes on in this vein, but with analysis and a lot of links to relevant material]

Coup 2K covers mainly the 2000 election and especially the technical definition of a "coup".

This Buzzflash commentary beats the subject into the ground as well.

Scoop reprints this dead on prediction from before the 2000 election: "Vote Fraud: Will YOUR Vote Be Stolen This November?"

Meanwhile, Here's a NH story of election fraud from the 2002 election. The Union Leader story costs to archive, but here's a summary: "New Hampshire GOP illegally sabotaged Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts. The very conservative Manchester Union Leader reports that the New Hampshire Republican party paid a telemarketing firm to make sham phone calls every 5 seconds to various Democratic phone banks on election day, jamming up the Democratic phone lines. Such tactics casued significant damage to the Democratic Party's election day efforts. One has to wonder if this is the first or only time the NH GOP has used such tactics. In 2000, George Bush carried New Hampshire by less than 2%. Perhaps Florida's electoral votes were not the only ones he stole."
posted by troutfishing at 1:01 PM on April 4, 2003

Holy Smokes troutfishing, me thinks you've looked into this before :)
posted by zeoslap at 1:15 PM on April 4, 2003

Alot of good ideas about voting reform here. I like the computer that prints a paper verification for possible recount and would add a duplicate copy of that to act as a type of numbered "receipt" kept by the voter in the event some in the ballot box became "unreadable." We have the technology, let's use it!
posted by LouReedsSon at 2:41 PM on April 4, 2003

While I agree with some of the above, I strongly reject requiring citizens to vote (I think it's none of the government's business whether I do or not) and strongly support the electoral college (because we are a constitutional federated republic and not a unitary democracy, and I believe this is one of the key strengths that explains our survival). These issues are quite separate from electronic voting.

As for the discrepancies between voting and polling, much of that can be ascribed to the trend -- hailed on Metafilter! -- of using caller ID and do-not-call phone lists to prevent telemarketers from disturbing us. It also puts an enormous crimp in the ability of pollsters to successfully derive a scientific sample at a reasonable cost and in a reasonable time period.

In any case, I'm not at all surprised that certain MeFites want to turn this into a completely partisan scare-thread.
posted by dhartung at 4:00 PM on April 4, 2003

dhartung, it's scary no matter who it favors. The core of democracy is, well, democracy. If that's tampered with, or even particularly amenable to tampering, it's not an exaggeration to say that the whole basis of our society is threatened, if not actually suspect.

But I agree with you about compulsory voting -- I simply can't imagine why anyone would think that the votes of people who otherwise wouldn't bother to vote are actually worth anything. The people who want to vote, who look forward to it, who follow up on issues and understand who the candidates are, who get up early on election day -- those are the people who make democracy work. When it does.
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:05 PM on April 4, 2003

As for the discrepancies between voting and polling, much of that can be ascribed to the trend -- hailed on Metafilter! -- of using caller ID and do-not-call phone lists to prevent telemarketers from disturbing us.

I'm not sure what your basis for this assertion is, but in any event it would have no effect on exit polls.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:17 PM on April 4, 2003

Regarding the lack of a physical record with new voting systems, the Washington Post had a recent article on a group of computer scientists that are also concerned, and are trying to get California's system (for starters) to include a paper receipt for each vote.
posted by mattpfeff at 7:51 PM on April 4, 2003

dhartung - As for a "partisan scare-thread", well........To begin with, Florida has admitted to extensive vote fraud in the 2000 election (see links I posted earlier in the thread, especially the Greg Palast link) . However the bogus Florida "purge list", which has been admitted to being over 95% incorrect (so that about 90,000 Florida voters were illegally barred from voting) was not corrected in time for the 2002 election two years later......You could call my mention of this a "scare tactic", but I call it a restatement of the acknowledged fact of systemic election fraud in Florida - and possible systemic election fraud in other states as well.

So much for Democracy.
posted by troutfishing at 10:39 PM on April 4, 2003

either systemic election fraud or systemic incompetence...and judging by what I've seen of election workers in Florida, either could easily be the case.
posted by Vidiot at 11:14 PM on April 4, 2003

Vidiot - Both, rather. If you go into the Palast material I linked to (up the thread), you'll find it documented that the State of Florida was quite aware that it's "voter purge" list was fantastically flawed before the 2000 election ocurred. In fact, 97% of the people on the list should not have been on it.
posted by troutfishing at 1:40 PM on April 6, 2003

And Kathleen Harris quite aware of the fact. So you cou,d say she personally swung the election not once, but twice (given that those 90,000 plus people illegally purged from Florida's voting rolls would have voted heavily Democratic (correlations: mostly Black, and predominantly poor...and so Democrats).
posted by troutfishing at 1:43 PM on April 6, 2003

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