The right way to do electronic voting

On Monday, Ottawa held its municipal elections. The physical process of voting achieved the major benefit of electronic voting, while retaining the security associated with paper ballots. This is the right way to handle things.

Each voter was given a piece of paper with lists of candidates for the three positions under contest. The voter selected candidates and filled in small circles beside their names with a pen – a process that should be familiar to anyone who attended high school in recent decades. The paper was then put into a sleeve to cover up the selections before being drawn through a scanner and into a storage box.

Because the scanners allowed quick tabulation of results, the outcome of the election could be known quickly. Because all the paper ballots were retained, there was little danger of an error or manipulation of the voting machines leading to an incorrect result.

I don’t know whether any auditing was done, but it would be a good idea. A certain portion of all the scanners and ballot boxes could be selected at random, with the ballots hand-counted and the tally compared with the electronic one. If significant disparities appeared, a manual recount of the whole election could then be conducted.

The only limitation I can see in the system, compared with all-electronic voting approaches, is that it cannot easily be tailored to help people with disabilities, such as very poor vision. That being said, it seems pretty straightforward for a volunteer to assist people in such situations.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

8 thoughts on “The right way to do electronic voting”

  1. Thanks for the information.

    Do you know if any auditing is done routinely in Ottawa, to check that the paper and electronic tallies match?

  2. The Faith-Based Vote
    In many of Tuesday’s closest races, states will use those same old, suspect voting machines.
    By Brad FriedmanPosted Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010, at 1:44 PM ET

    You probably believe Delaware’s U.S. Senate nominee Christine O’Donnell defeated Mike Castle in the state’s August GOP primary. You may be right, but you can’t prove it. The only thing that can be proved is that Castle trounced O’Donnell by about 55 percent to 45 percent in the paper-based absentee-ballot count. On the touch-screen voting systems used on Election Day, however, O’Donnell is said to have defeated Castle by almost the same percentages, reversed. But there is no way to verify that result.

    As we barrel toward Election Day, Direct Recording Electronic voting systems—usually touch-screen, always entirely unverifiable—are still being used by 20 percent to 30 percent of U.S. voters. The nation will rely on the faith-based results reported by these oft-failed, easily manipulated, virus-prone voting systems for the next two to six years and probably beyond. Whoever the machines report as the “winner” will become the winner, even though no human being will be able to prove that any of those candidates received more votes than the “loser.” And there will be virtually nothing we can do about it.

    Some DRE systems pretend to offer voters the chance to review a “paper trail” printed alongside the machine, which is supposed to show which candidates and initiatives the voter is hoping to vote for. But these paper trails are not actually counted by anyone. The numbers used to calculate winners and losers are recorded inside the computer hardware; tallies don’t come from the computer’s touch-screen, nor from what’s printed on those little rolls of paper.

  3. When I was in Ottawa, I remember reading how a long time Ottawa city councillor in Ottawa was unseated by a 25 year old newbie. I think the vote difference was a little less than 100 votes. The long time councillor apparently did not contest the result. This may be some indication of acceptance of the integrity of the voting system.

  4. According to Ezra Chiloba, CEO of Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, preparations are far better this time than last. A subsidiary of Safran, a French firm best known for aerospace technology, has delivered 45,000 tablets to check biometric voter identification at the 40,833 polling stations and to prevent multiple voting. Around 360,000 officials have been hired and trained to staff them and oversee the count. The voters’ register of 19.6m has been vetted by KPMG, an international auditor. No one claims it is perfect: births and deaths often go unrecorded in Kenya’s remote places. “But if the voter ID works it doesn’t matter how bad the voters’ roll is,” says Don Bisson of the Carter Centre, which is monitoring the elections. “Dead people don’t have voter biometrics,” says an official of the commission.

    To prove their identities, voters must press thumb or finger on a tablet (shown here). Up come matching names and photographs. Officials in the polling stations will adjudicate in case of glitches. Votes are cast on printed ballot papers, once an identity is confirmed. The presidential result must be announced within seven days. If no one wins more than 50%, a run-off must be held within a month. (In 2013 suspicions rose when Uhuru Kenyatta squeaked past that mark by a mere few thousand votes, though he probably did genuinely win the first round.)

    Each party and candidate will be entitled to put agents in polling stations to oversee the count, which will be transmitted electronically and also manually to one of 290 constituency stations. The supreme court has decided that, once the result has been declared there, it cannot be changed at the counting headquarters. In Kenya and elsewhere, much fiddling has happened centrally. So this ruling is hugely positive, says a leading observer. (By contrast in Zimbabwe in 2008, when Robert Mugabe lost the first round of a presidential election, his election commission in the capital sat on the ballots for weeks before declaring that the challenger had narrowly missed the 50% mark that would have given him outright victory. Such lethal violence followed that he withdrew.)

    Another vital safeguard is “parallel vote tabulation” (PVT), whereby party agents and independent observers can witness the count in randomly selected polling stations and announce each result, which will be agreed upon, photographed by smartphone and transmitted. Elsewhere, and in Kenya in 2013, PVT has been very close to the final result (see chart), making it far harder for an incumbent to inflate his tally, at least by a large amount. “PVT is a highly effective check on the electoral commissions,” says an expert from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). It is thought to have been vital for ensuring fairness in Ghana and Nigeria. Kenya’s main opposition leader, Raila Odinga, says he will put five agents in each of the polling stations. Even just one in each would be a boon.

  5. “You can’t digitise integrity,” says John Githongo, a veteran Kenyan anti-corruption campaigner, implying that the corrupt politicians who still dominate the country’s politics will not let technology get in the way of fiddling the result if it goes against them. “The manual count is definitive,” says one foreign observer. “The electronic one is a backup”—and should not be considered a fail-safe. Yet paper ballots are always liable to be lost, stuffed or falsified.

  6. Having a fragmented, low-tech election administration has some advantages. Though foreign powers might interfere with election campaigns, ancient voting machines are hard to meddle with. The gru’s hackers did not alter any vote tallies. Yet badly designed ballots and interminable recounts corrode confidence in other ways. For a relatively meagre investment, states could buy voting machines that are not connected to a network, and therefore cannot be hacked remotely, and that spit out paper receipts, so results can be audited later. Failure to do so will invite claims of fraud in 2020 from more candidates, probably starting with the president.

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