Computing Applications Viewpoints

Inside Risks: U.S. Election After-Math

Recounting problems still associated with election integrity, transparency, and accountability.
  1. Introduction
  2. Conclusion
  3. References
  4. Author
  5. Footnotes

From the perspective of computer-based election integrity, it was fortunate that the U.S. presidential electoral vote plurality was definitive. However, numerous problems remain to be rectified, including some experienced in close state and local races.

Elections represent a complicated system with end-to-end requirements for security, integrity, and privacy, but with many weak links throughout. For example, a nationwide CNN survey for the 2008 election tracked problems in registration (26%), election systems (15%), and polling place accessibility and delays (14%). Several specific problems are illustrative.

Registration. In Cleveland and Columbus, OH, many voters who had previously voted at their current addresses were missing from the polling lists; some were on the Ohio statewide database, but not on the local poll registry, and some of those had even received postcard notification of their registration and voting precinct. At least 35,000 voters had to submit provisional ballots. (Sec. of State Jennifer Brunner rejected the use of a list of 200,000 voters whose names did not identically match federal records.) Several other states attempted to disenfranchise voters based on nonmatches with databases whose accuracy is known to be seriously flawed.

Machines. In Kenton County, KY, a judge ordered 108 Hart voting machines shut down because of persistent problems with straight-party votes not being properly recorded for the national races. As in 2002 and 2004, voters reported touch-screen votes flipped from the touched candidate’s name to another. Calibration and touching are apparently quite sensitive.

In Maryland, Andrew Harris, a long-time advocate in the state senate for avoiding paperless touch-screen and other direct-recording voting machines (DREs) ran for the Representative position in Congressional District 1. He trailed by a few votes over the 0.5% margin that would have necessitated a mandatory recount. Of course, recounts in paperless DREs are relatively meaningless if the results are already incorrect.

In California, each precinct typically had only one DRE, for blind and other disabled voters who preferred not to vote on paper. In Santa Clara County, 57 of those DREs were reported to be inoperable. (Secretary of State Debra Bowen was a pioneer in commissioning a 2007 study on the risks inherent in existing computer systems.1)

There were also various reports in other states of paperless DREs that were inoperable including some in which more than half of the machines could not be initialized. In Maryland and Virginia, there were reports of voters having to wait up to five hours.

Every Vote Should Count. Close Senate races in Minnesota and Alaska required ongoing auditing and recounting, particularly as more uncounted votes were discovered. Numerous potential undervotes also required manual reconsideration for voter intent. Anomalies are evidently commonplace, but must be resolvable— and, in close elections must be resolved.

Deceptive Practices. The George Mason University email system was hacked, resulting in the sending of misleading messages regarding student voting. Numerous misleading phone calls, Web sites, and email messages have been reported, including those that suggested Democrats were instructed to vote on Wednesday instead of Tuesday to minimize poll congestion.2

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The needs for transparency, oversight, and meaningful audit trails in the voting process are still paramount. Problems are very diverse. Despite efforts to add voter-verified paper trails to paperless direct-recording voting machines, some states still used unauditable systems for which meaningful recounts are essentially impossible. The electronic systems are evidently also difficult to manage and operate.

Systematic disenfranchisement continues. Although there seems to have been very little voter fraud, achieving accuracy and fairness in the registration process is essential. To vary an old adage, It’s not just the votes that count, it’s the votes that don’t count.

An extensive amount of work remains to be done to provide greater integrity throughout the election process.

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    1. Bishop, M. and Wagner, D. Risks of e-voting. Commun. ACM 50, 11 (Nov. 2007); http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/elections_vsr.htm.

    2. E-Deceptive Campaign Practices, EPIC and the Century Found. (Oct. 20, 2008), http://votingintegrity.org/pdf/edeceptive_report.pdf; and Deceptive Practices 2.0: Legal and Policy Responses Common Cause, The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law, and the Century Found. (Oct. 20, 2008), http://www.tcf.org/list.asp?type=TP&topic=6.

    DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1461928.1461939

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