Our Election Officials are Listening!

In an editorial last October, I discussed the three requirements I have for any new voting system. Slightly rephrased, those are:

1. A fully auditable paper trail
2. Open Source Software
3. Post-Election Audits

Kris Kobach introduced legislation in January regarding such audits and requiring them in Kansas prior to the results being officially certified. Although I have some concerns about his suggested methodology, an attempt has been made to address #3! This is great news!

By it’s very nature, electronic voting equipment introduces points of opacity into our voting system. In order to have faith in the official results presented by these machines, we must have public and transparent audits of these voting results. I am so grateful to discover that my discomfort at their lack is shared by many other Kansans that it is now being discussed by our elected officials charged with making sure that our voting system is accessible and accurate for all Kansans.

Two vendors were invited to show their equipment on Feb 1st. Election Systems & Software (ES&S) which is headquartered in Canada and the Henry M. Adkins & Son Inc. of Missouri. I was able to attend and evaluate the two proposed systems.

Both systems provide a full paper trail of all ballots. That means, that with the introduction of either vendor’s equipment, requirement #1 will be addressed. One of the two, Henry Adkins, uses open source code. They get my vote based on that very important detail! Selecting this system rather than the ES&S equipment will address requirement #2.

I think these responses constitutes movement towards the light of transparency. We should celebrate it!

I want to extend kudos to Kris Kobach and Tabitha Lehman for listening and responding to these concerns. Hopefully, they will also be willing to listen to my criticisms regarding aspects of their proposals I don’t support.

Deputy Election Commissioner Sandy Gritz has informed me that the selection of vendor for new voting equipment in Sedgwick County has not yet been made. Now is the time to provide input on this issue. If you want to have influence over this decision, let Ms. Lehman and our Sedgwick County Commissioners know that you support the purchase of the Henry Adkins system. Just dropping them a quick email informs them about what is most important to their constituents in selecting a new system. I would also recommend asking them to look into how the costs of these electronic systems compare with the cost of doing a full handcount of all ballots.

The next step is contacting our county commissioners here in Sedgwick County and letting them know your preferences in voting equipment. Open source software and a physical paper ballot for every vote – are minimal requirements to be able to conduct an audit of the system. It doesn’t guarantee the machines can’t or won’t ever by rigged. It’s the minimum system requirement for being able to detect tampering if and when it occurs.

I want to emphasize that either proposed system would be a major improvement over our current equipment. I only wish Ms. Lehman was willing to acquire the equipment and train her staff for the 2016 elections. I can also understand her desire to stick with a system that she knows how to manage and use smaller elections to work out the kinks (there are always kinks!) in implementing a new system. Just remember to ask for a paper ballot when you vote! It’s your right and voting on a paper ballot is the only way to know that your vote can be counted later by a human being.

I’ve written a detailed description of my impressions of the two vendors and the equipment demonstrated, but I’ll put up a quick summary before I delve into the details.

Summary

I think optical scanning equipment is an acceptable approach when combined with rigorous audits regarding accuracy and far superior to our current equipment. Ballot Marking Devices are a reasonable and appropriate accommodation for those unable to mark a ballot without assistance. They may also be more cost effective, but I would want an unbiased assessment of the relative costs before considering them a better choice over voter marked paper ballots.

I have serious concerns about the use of electronic poll books. Like the paper ballots, to shift this important record of the voting process away from a physical paper record created at the time the vote is casts disrupts the auditable paper trail used to assess the accuracy of our elections. They may be useful for the election officials in administering the election and justifiable on that basis but the demonstration seemed to indicate movement towards a entirely electronic method of registering voter who show up to cast their ballots.

Electronic Registration equipment should never be used as a replacement of the physical polling book that records all individuals who showed up to cast a vote that day. If we don’t have the paper record, we don’t have an auditable trail to verify the results. Without that, we cannot have confidence that the reported results are accurate! This principle applies to polling books just as it does to ballots.

My opinion is that given the security issues inherent in all electronic voting systems, including optical scanning machines, we should never trust their results without appropriate and wholly transparent verification of those results. It can be accomplished using a sampling approach to reduce costs. But that sampling plan must be set up and run correctly, or you can end up with results that allow government officials to claim the water in Flint was safe to drink.

For this reason, counting all the paper ballots manually should also be considered as an option. I would be interested in comparing the scanning equipment with appropriate post-election audits to verify results compared to a simple manual count of paper ballots. I sometimes wonder if the use of modern equipment is actually the best choice for the ritual of voting.

The Feb 1st Voting Systems Demonstration.

It was a busy day for the elections office. I was a little disconcerted by their request for my name when I arrived, but I signed in without complaint. It wasn’t a requirement, just a request. Presumably to put me on a mailing list for news about our election equipment.

I visited the Henry Adkins room first. They had several represents, a gentleman by the name of Brent Wagoner was kind enough to go through their equipment with me. Their software is open source, which is one of two major requirements for me. Built on a Linux system – a choice he seemed a bit defensive about and started expounding on its superiority to Windows. I explained that wasn’t necessary. Personally, I can’t imagine why anyone would consider Windows a suitable choice for election software, but I consider it immoral to use proprietary software to report results of a public election.

Henry Adkins representative demonstrated an optical scanning system. This system expects the majority of voters to mark paper ballots and insert them into the scanner/ballot box. For ADA requirements, their touchpad ballot marker machine is designed to enable people with a variety of disabilities to mark their ballot and verify the machine correctly understands their choices. It outputs a paper ballot marked with their choices, shown both in English and in a machine code that the scanner will read. Mr. Wagoner even explained the coding system they use for the scanning equipment, thereby enabling me to verify that the machine coding of my choices was accurate. Another level of transparency!

The machines are claimed to have no wireless connections or modems and check encryption codes before allowing election data transferred via flash drives. While this is all good practice but not always done, those are details that I lack the skills to personally verify. Nor do I feel I trust such claims given findings such as EVEREST: Evaluation and Validation of Election-Related Equipment, Standards and Testing. They found various ports in voting machines that weren’t supposed to have them, including wireless connections. I feel the best approach is to acknowledge the lack of security with respect to computer vote counting and implement a detection/verification system as an integral part of the process.

ES&S also showed an optical scanning system. They had several representatives all dressed in gray suits. The main meaningful difference with their competitor across the hall is that their software is proprietary. Their system is set up to include a wireless modem, but they won’t be on any machines shipped to Kansas as our state law prevents it. As with the Henry Adkins equipment, I feel it’s best to assume the machinery could be comprised and make verification of results part of the process.

The only other notable difference in the two systems was the machine coding of ballots. ES&S used a barcode system. Thus, there’s no way for a voter to verify that the machine readable code is accurately representing their selections. This relatively minor difference (few voters will care enough to check that the machine code is correct) is a point toward the Henry Adkins machines because it improves the transparency of the process for the voter.

There was also a difference between the two vendors in their suggested uses of the ballot marking machines. The ES&S representative said the cost per machine marked ballot was 9 cents compared to approximately 25 center for a paper ballot. Thus, they recommend directing voters to use the ballot marking machine in preference to marking their own ballot as a cost saving measure. I am reluctant to take these figures at face value from a sales representative, but if an unbiased evaluation were to show a lower overall cost for that approach, I would consider that a point in favor of the ES&S equipment.

The county currently uses ES&S equipment, so a transition to new machines will be easier for the office to implement. That is a legitimate point in favor of ES&S, particularly from the point of view of people charged with getting the new equipment up and running. However, it is a point of relatively minor importance to voters.

The Henry Adkins representative focused on the use of the ballot marking machine as a way to accommodate disabled voters and recommended that we purchase only one or two such devices to be available at a polling station. This is the approach I favor as well. The voter marked paper ballot is the best tool we have to ensure that our vote will be properly counted. We should use it!

2 thoughts on “Our Election Officials are Listening!”

  1. I also favored the Adkins machines, mainly because I don’t trust ES&S. Both vendors have improved their machines, allowing the voter to actual hold and verify his/her vote. This separate piece of paper is then deposited and kept for later audit or recount, if state laws permit it. ES&S, however, has been involved in a lot of suspicious election results and in general, at least in the early years, they were very secretive and, according to accounts I read from election officials, mean-spirited. The Adkins people seemed genuinely interested in satisfying voters desire for a “verifiable” result.

  2. Thank you so much for all that you’ve done! I’m spreading the word to get support for your fight on Feb. 18th.

    This was a great blog post, btw. Don’t neglect the fact that both ES&S and Diebold, the two “competing” companies that monopolize the election technology industry with 80% of the DRE voting machines used in US elections, are both controlled by the Urosevich brothers, a pair of extreme right-wing zealots. ES&S is the same company that may have won Chuck Hagel his Senate seat (http://harpers.org/archive/2012/11/how-to-rig-an-election/5/). Diebold was just recently charged with falsifying records and bribing officials (http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2013/10/diebold_charged_with_bribing_o.html) and has a clear record of world-wide criminal activity.

    Coinsidence? I think not.

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