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On Elections and Voting

Abstract: Election officals must ensure the integrity of their operations, especially in light of the disasterous 2000 and 2004 United States Presidential elections. To ensure security, voting machines must record each ballot and provide printed records, and each voter must be able to verify that his or her vote was counted as cast.

Why is voter turnout so low in the United States? The popular opinion appears to be that many non-voters have some inherent apathy or tacitly accept majority rule by others. To the contrary, I believe that many have learned to distrust elections and voting processes enough to think that their voices won't be heard because their votes won't be counted.

I vote regularly, though I'm not very confident that my vote ever gets counted, either. Especially after the disastrous Presidential election of 2000, I'm a bit surprised we haven't seen widespread demand for improved accountability from our election officials.

Election Goals

As a concerned American who has reflected upon the matter, I propose that all election and voting systems (including any enabling technologies used) should accomplish the following goals:

  1. allow votes to be cast only by those:
    1. legally entitled to vote (including those with disabilities) and
    2. who have not already voted in a given election (yielding "one person, one vote");
  2. securely, accurately and without bias:
    1. record secretly the votes cast by each voter and
    2. tabulate the votes cast and report the outcome of the election based on that summation; and
  3. demonstrate both of the above by allowing audits by each director of elections and by each voter of:
    1. how each individual vote was recorded and
    2. the outcome of the election through the tabulation of all votes.

Achieving Election Goals

Feeling that the above goals seem reasonable and widely accepted, I will attempt to describe below what citizens must insist upon in order to achieve each of these goals.

1. Allow Only All Eligible Voters

Within my own home county (Travis County, Texas), the process of voter registration, verification and polling works reasonably well, but still offers some significant room for improvement.

Voter Registration

As much as the voter registration process should screen out all people not legally entitled to vote, it should attempt to include all qualified voters. Through various records, including its own title deeds, each county should have a reasonable idea of who its residents are and thus where to find qualified voters. Whenever a person buys a home or leases an apartment within the county, the county could very easily check (at least cursorily) the person's legal eligibility to vote (and perhaps to reside) in that county and deliver an application for voter registration, if unable to register them automatically.

Voter rolls should not allow people to stalk or harass others by violating their rights to privacy. At present, my county allows people to anonymously find the home address of any registered voter by name via its Web page at < http://www.traviscountytax.org/showVoterSearch.do >. (I greatly appreciate and welcome feedback and discourse, including dissenting opinions, via this Web site's contact page, but please don't stalk me.)

Require Photographic Identification at Polls

In order to assure reasonable certainty that a person casting a vote is registered to vote in a given precinct and has not already voted there, polling places should require some form of government-issued photographic identification to be presented by every person before voting. (To respect the right to vote of extremely destitute people, they should be provided adequate photographic identification at no charge. I believe that states' failure to do this was likely the basis for voter photo ID requirements to recently have been ruled unconstitutional by the Arizona, Georgia and Missouri state supreme courts.)

Unfortunately, my county currently does not require photographic identification of its voters. It declares (followed by a caveat for first-time voters) on its Web page at < http://www.co.travis.tx.us/county_clerk/election/20061107/polls.asp >:

Registered voters can vote with a voter registration card, driver's license or any official photo ID, birth certificate, United States citizenship papers or passport, a copy of a current utility bill, bank statement or other official document that shows the name and address of the voter.

With that in mind, people could very easily vote in a precinct using the discarded utility bills of registered voters after having verified the registration of those voters via the county's Web site. Thus, my county's voter identification process is effectively worthless.

I believe that accepting non-credible evidence of identity, as my county does, does not increase voter turnout by making the process accessible to more voters, but rather decreases voter turnout by increasing the citizens' level of distrust of and doubt toward the system.

2. Record and Tabulate Secret Votes

Recording Votes

At each polling location, each ballot should be recorded in a printed human-readable form; until this is done, there is by definition no actual record of the votes cast. Therefore, to assure that each ballot is recorded when using an electronic ballot system, a printed record should be made at each polling location (with ink shown not to fade significantly over long periods of time). To maintain the secrecy of each ballot, printers should be placed and operated in a locked boxes, akin to traditional ballot boxes. Given the importance of the printed ballot record, that printers (as all equipment) are prone to failure, and that failure of a printer could not be detected or corrected in such a locked box, it quickly becomes apparent that the easiest, most secure and most cost-effective option is to use only paper ballots at each polling location.

To enable auditing, each voter should be given a unique secret identifier, ideally known only to the voter. If using a paper ballot, removing and retaining a ballot stub (printed with the ballot number) could provide a reasonable (yet not ideal) degree of secrecy as long as there is no record linking the voter to the ballot. If using an electronic system such as the ones used in my county, voters could retain the access code ticket used place their votes, analogous to the ballot stub. Better still, an electronic system could create and display to the voter a unique identifier (unseen even by polling officials) once a ballot has been cast; such a method is described at < http://www.voteword.org >.

Tabulating Ballots

To assure that all ballots are recorded and tabulated, no tabulation should occur at polling places.

The group running < http://www.blackboxvoting.org > demonstrated in HBO's Hacking Democracy documentary (broadcast November 2, 2006) that the Diebold election system apparently does not record votes but merely only tabulates them. In doing so, the group has demonstrated that Diebold has misrepresented its system's function and thereby its capability, making a strong case for Diebold's civil and criminal misconduct. The use of the Diebold system, and any other that only tabulates ballots rather than recording them, should cease immediately.

Additionally, because of the the widely-demonstrated flaws in the security and – in part therefore – relatively high cost of maintaining Microsoft software (which, for brevity's sake, must remain the topic of another article), Microsoft's products should be barred from use by all governmental entities, especially those charged with performing critical functions such as counting votes.

3. Allow Official and Public Audits

In addition to the results of an election, the votes cast on each ballot should be published along with each ballot's unique identifier. This could easily be done at negligible cost via a Web page for each precinct, in a manner similar to that described at < http://www.voteword.org >. All ballot data should be published (downloadable from the Web site) in text-based files that may be readily imported into most popular spreadsheet programs, via common comma-separated value or tab-delimited record formats.

Doing this would allow:

  1. individual voters to verify that their votes were recorded correctly,
  2. members of a community to acknowledge to each other that their votes were recorded correctly without revealing how they cast their votes, and
  3. the director of elections and individual voters to verify the final count from an election using the same data.

Further Improvements

Vote For or Against Candidates

Under the current system that allows only votes for candidates, voters opposed to a particular candidate select the candidate's opponent whom they feel has the best chance of winning, regardless of qualification, effectively ensuring a two-party system. This situation may be improved by allowing voters to cast one vote for or against any candidate in each race.

Disallow Straight-Party Ballots

Since I first began voting in Texas, one of the things that has struck me the oddest about voting is that voters (at least those in my county) may cast votes for all candidates of a particular party by selecting only one box on the entire ballot. I believe that this system of "straight party" voting effectively reinforces the duopoly of the Democratic and Republican parties to the detriment of other candidates and is therefore fundamentally unfair and undemocratic. Thus, single boxes that facilitate straight party voting should be removed from ballots.

Summary

Linking voter registration to changes in residence, using primarily paper ballots and opening ballot records to public audit would demonstrate due diligence from election officials, increasing the confidence of potential voters and thus voter turnout, affirming the voters' acceptance of being governed and ultimately the legitimacy of a government by the people.

Given the negligible cost associated with offering such a system, we must assume that elections are fraudulent unless and until voters may audit them via the World-Wide Web.