07 February, 2020

Protecting the vote of the people

When the officers of government are chosen by the vote of the people, it is crucial that the people can trust the process of having elections and counting the votes. As long as there have been elections, there have been problems with them. Over time, societies have worked out how to mitigate these problems so that the people can feel confident in the process. The recent introduction of modern technology into the process is hailed as bringing elections into the current age by some, but has been the cause of not trusting the process for others. The recent event of the Democrat Party's caucus in Iowa has brought this issue to the forefront again.

Before addressing the problems of computerized voting, let's start by considering the problems that have historically occurred in elections.

The Private Vote
Why do we have a private ballot? When your vote is public, you are subject to different public pressures if you don't vote the way others want. At the time of a vote, there is tremendous pressure to not go against the majority of the crowd even if you disagree with it. If others can check how you voted after the fact, then there is a risk that they can do things against you so that you, and others, won't go against what they want in the future. By making votes private there is a freedom to vote how you want because no one will know how you voted.

Voter Verification
One of the issues surrounding the integrity of the election process is to be able to verify that those who cast ballots are authorized to do so. There are two sides to this issue. First, although citizens can be denied the vote based on youth, mental capacity, or being convicted of certain crimes, voting is a right of citizenship. In order for the public to have confidence in the election process, they need to know that non citizens are not interfering by casting invalid votes. The second side of this is to make sure that people are not casting votes for others. When you show up to cast your vote, you need to have confidence that someone else hasn't already come in claiming to be you and stolen your vote. These issues can only be resolved if those charged with running the polling locations can verify that people showing up to vote are who they claim to be. Even this can only work if the voter rolls are kept up to date. This means that those processing your registration to vote need to be able to verify who you are. This would avoid situations like the man who registered his dog to vote, which he did to demonstrate how not verifying registrations can make voter fraud easy to do. (https://www.ksbw.com/article/pacific-grove-man-registers-dog-to-vote/1052397) When you move and register to vote in a new location, those processing your registration can verify that you have been removed from the previous location's roll. This also means that people are removed from voter rolls when they die. There is some truth to the joke that runs,
"My father was a life-long member of (party X), but he voted for the other party in the last election. He never would have done that when he was alive."

Clear Ballots
Most ballots today are designed to be pretty clear. Names of candidates and initiatives are clearly printed and the place to mark your vote is clear. There are many issues that remain with this. It wasn't that long ago that an issue was raised because the list of names on the sample ballot was in a different order than those on the actual ballot. This raised the question of the validity of that election because some people mark their sample ballots and bring them to the voting booth and simply transfer their votes by voting in the same place on the actual ballot.

There are two legitimate positions in this type of case. On the one hand, no one should blindly mark their actual ballot without verifying what they are marking. On the other hand, in this particular case, there didn't appear to be a reason for listing the names in a different order and there was no indication to the voters that this was done. If previous sample ballots were always the same as the actual ballot, there is a reasonable expectation that this will be the case for the current ballot, so people should be informed when it's not.

Write-in Availability
There can be limitations, legitimate or contrived, to including the names of all candidates for a given political office. In the state of Washington, a primary is held and only the two candidates who got the most votes will appear of the official ballot. This effectively excludes all third party candidates from being printed on the ballot. However, the voter should not be deprived of voting for their candidate of choice by such limitations. For this reason, it has become common to have a blank space where the voter can write in the name of their candidate of choice if that candidate is not listed as an option on the ballot.

Polling Locations vs. Mail-In Ballots
The issues listed above are easily dealt with at a polling location. Just about anyone can act as an observer at a polling location to try and catch when things are not handled correctly. By having observers from opposing sides present at the polling locations, the people at large can have confidence that cheating in the voting process will at least be minimized, since no process can guarantee to completely eliminate it. However, there are some who will not be able to go to a polling location to cast their ballot. In addition to the sick and elderly, people who are away from their polling location due to military or business obligations need to be able to cast their vote like everyone else. The mail-in ballot is the best solution for this situation at hand, but we need to understand that this method actually re-introduces the verification problem that can be solved at the polling location. There is no way to actually verify that the person who filled in a ballot was the person who was supposed to. Because of this, I believe that mail-in ballots should be limited to cases of need. Unfortunately, in my state (Washington) our right to go to a polling location was taken away from us and the entire election process is done by mail.

Counting Ballots and Verification Process
As with the polling location, having observers from opposing sides involved in the process of transporting and counting ballots can provide a general sense of confidence for the population at large that attempts to cheat in the election process will be caught and corrected. It is not a perfect system, but it generally works and has done so for a long time.

Computerized Voting in Light of the Issues
The main problem with computerized voting is that it greatly complicates the issue of verification. This is because verifying a computerized vote can no longer be handled by just about anyone. Instead it becomes necessary for highly trained specialists to take on this role. This is because computerized voting introduces the issue of computer security to the entire process.

With manual voting, verification can generally be trusted by the presence of observers from opposing sides - a role that can be filled by just about anyone. With computerized voting, opposing sides would need to have experts in computer security and databases who would need to be able to examine every aspect of the computerized process. An incomplete list of what is needed includes things like the following.
  • The operating system and program code on the voting machines.
  • The operating system and program code on the servers receiving the data.
  • The process for transferring the voting data from the voting machines to the server.
  • Examining the database logs to make sure that the data was all processed.
Even with all of this, there would need to be some way to verify that no changes can be made to the programs on every voting machine and server after they had been examined. Every component of the system would need to be preserved without change for post election examination in case issues are suspected. (https://www.news10.com/news/national/georgia-election-server-showed-signs-of-tampering-expert/)

These issues become even worse if the voting process is moved away from computerized voting machines to something like an app on our "smart" phones. This was revealed with the Iowa caucus of the Democrat party last week.

The problem is that society has become much too complacent with the advances of technology so that we tend to overlook, and even forget, that there are still major security issues which should make us question the wisdom of introducing them into the election process. It may be that, some day in the future, the general public can put their trust in computerized voting. However I believe we are still a long way away from that. The issues with computerized voting are so large that there is no reason for the public to put any trust in it.

This comic by XKCD     https://www.xkcd.com/2030/     Licensed under a Creative Commons Atribution-Non-Commercial 2.5 License

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