Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What Voting Is Not

I've seen a few misconceptions about voting that keep on getting repeated. I'm going to address the most common ones I see.
  1. Voting is not an ATM transaction.
  2. Every once in a while you'll hear someone ask "if the bank's ATM's can give me receipts, why can't voting machines?" Banking transactions are purposefully designed to be trackable, verifiable, and undo-able. Every party knows exactly what occurred, and can prove it (reasonably so) to a third party. You don't want these feature for voting. Secret ballots are not supposed to be trackable. (Some districts assign unique numbers to each paper ballot, so an individual's vote could be determined, but there are generally protections in place from revealing the person-to-number mapping.) Being able to prove to a third party how you voted is also bad for our voting culture. With third party verification, it becomes possible to literally buy votes. Imagine a goon for your least favorite candidate stopping by a homeless shelter, driving everyone there to a polling booth, and then giving them a $20 if they come back out with a receipt for that candidate. (One can also imagine coercion, where someone is threatened if they cannot prove who they voted for.) Now, one might make a case for doing away with the secret ballot, where everyone's vote is public. That's a whole different ball-of-wax, and might be worthy of consideration, but I don't think people who want ATM receipts are really urging us to get rid of the secret ballot.
  3. Voting is not a science project
  4. If you come out with indeterminate results from a science experiment, you declare the experiment as failed and run it again. You do not just take your best guess. However, an election -must- have a result. "No clear winner" cannot assume office, even if there really isn't a clear winner. You can't just rerun an election in the hope for a clearer result. (Why would your new election be any clearer? Because people finally understand that their votes might make a difference?) Now, you could certainly run it over again if you had a specific problem that you believed could be corrected, such as massive fraud (like in the Ukraine). But your clock is already ticking, and you can't be doing re-votes the day the new term begins. But for the most part you need to make sure your election is running smooth -before- the election. Lots of this responsibility falls on the candidates and their staff. That means that you check that the ballots list your candidate clearly, that there are sufficient resources in the districts to let votes be counted, that there aren't construction projects underway to block traffic to polling stations. The election committee needs to make sure that these materials are all available for review ahead of time, with a plan in case serious errors are found.
  5. Voting is not exact
  6. All forms of measurement involve error. Voting is no different. There are going to be mistakes involved in setting up voting lists, in registering voters, and in figuring out who gets to vote. Even the simplest voting forms are going to be misunderstood by some non-zero portion of voters. What's important is not getting any of these perfect. Because that will never happen. All these interests must be balanced, and some of them go against each other. You can stop fradulent voting, or you can allowing authorized voting, but the false positives that you allow for the one hurt the other. What is important is to defining the acceptable rates of error for each step, and have procedures for undoing errors. Unfortunately I cannot see any politician who wants to get votes talking about an "acceptable rate of error" in an election.
  • So can technology help?
  • Technology can help with some steps. For example, an IVR phone line could be set up that lets people verify their voter registration well before the deadline. Copies of the ballot can be made available on websites. Technology can be neutral in some cases. The problem of the 2000 Presidential election wasn't hanging chads; it was that the vote difference in Florida was less than 2 percent of 1 percent, well within the margin of error of any mass human endeavour.1 Better voting technology would've spared us all the nonsense about what kinds of chads should and should not count, but the election still would've been in the margin of error of the new voting method, and there still would've been the question of what voters were and were not allowed to vote. Technology can be harmful in some cases. Some electronic voting machines provide no mechanism for confirming their results besides their manufacturers swearing up and down that they are accurate. (Open source voting machines are not the answer, but that's the subject of another essay.)
There are steps that can be taken to make voting more accurate, trustworthy, and transparent. But it takes a serious look at what our relative priorities are for an election, and a careful analysis of the solutions available. 1Imagine that you asked 10,000 people to fill in a Scan-tron form with their initials. Do you think that only 2 would get it wrong in some way? Would any confuse a small-print O with a Q? Who would use a pen despite being given a #2 pencil? Would people without a middle name follow the format you told them? Did you even think of the problem of no middle name beforehand? None of these are common problems, but when you trying for 1% of 1% accuracy they become things you have to deal with.

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