Explaining Voting Machines to Space Aliens

Karen McKim —

When I see nutty behavior—things like entering toddlers in beauty pageants, maintaining a national system of employer-funded health insurance, or legalizing switchblades—I practice empathy for my silly fellow humans by imagining how I would explain their conduct to space aliens. You see, I don’t want the Haggunenons to get the impression my species is irredeemably stupid, so the exercise forces me to dig deep to figure out any possible rational explanation for the behavior.

To appreciate the irrationality of our current use of voting-machine output, imagine what would happen if people in your city started questioning the accuracy of their computer-tabulated property tax bills. Here’s what would not happen:

—  The city treasurer would not say that he has always mailed the bills before checking whether his computer tabulated them correctly, and that no one has ever complained before.

—  He would not defend that careless practice by pointing out that no law explicitly requires him to check their accuracy.

—  If asked to audit his computer’s output, he would not start chattering about the dangers of ‘tampering’ with his own records.

—  He would not demand that the suspicious property owner pay the full cost of the audit unless the suspected error was tiny–less than 0.25% (one-quarter of one percent.)

And if some deranged city treasurer ever did respond like that, you can bet the local newspaper would not speculate about why the property owners unexpectedly chose to receive suspicious tax bills, or what sort of tinfoil-hat paranoia made them want verification.

Yet that is precisely what happens when citizens have questions about the accuracy of our computer-tabulated election results.

As a culture, we’re computer-literate.  ExplainingToSpaceAliensWe understand the need to maintain as much security as we can for all computers, including voting machines. We understand the need to test them before putting them into actual use. But voting machines remain the ONLY computers in either business or government that we operate with no routine way of noticing when their output has been affected by errors or by manipulation while the computers were in actual use and not just being tested.

So, how would I explain that to space aliens?

It’s not money: Manual vote-counting to verify the computer output can be done by low-paid temporary staff like poll workers or even by volunteers. Post-election verification would cost only a tiny fraction of our overall elections-administration budget.

It’s not time: Although our statutes unfortunately value speed over accuracy, they still give county officials roughly three weeks following each election to declare results final, and allow them to ask for more time if needed. And verification has been made efficient and economical by sampling methods specifically designed for elections by the American Statistical Association, and by recent technological innovations such as digital ballot images, which can be displayed more quickly than paper ballots can be handled.

So what is it? We can say it’s just habit, but that just kicks the question backwards. Why did such strange habits develop?

The main reasons, I think, are standard human foibles—wishful thinking and its evil twin, denial. We want impartial vote-counting so badly that we imagine it exists where it literally cannot. Just a moment’s thought would make anyone realize that every computer is programmed and maintained by fallible, sometimes dishonest humans. But taking that moment would mean giving up our belief in a magically impartial vote-counting box. Our gut knows that admitting the need for verification in future elections means admitting past elections may already have been stolen without our knowledge. For many it is literally unthinkable that we may already be governed by people chosen by criminals or by computer glitches rather than by the will of the people.

A lesser reason, I think, is the tendency, especially among election officials, to see elections as competitions between individual candidates rather than as the expression of a community’s collective will. Talk not very long to most local elections officials and you’ll pick up a burning desire just to get the thing settled—like your mom felt when she didn’t care which kid was right, she just wanted the fight to stop. Maintaining the illusion of quickly decisive results is more comfortable than making sure everyone understands that Election-Night results are preliminary until verified. I cannot count the times I’ve had election officials express a sense that there cannot possibly be a problem when no individual candidate has challenged the results—as if voters like me have no standing to ask for evidence of accuracy, or as if they themselves have no obligation to ensure accuracy unless challenged.

In summary, it’s a good thing I’m not going to have to defend our management of voting machines to the Haggunenons, because that’s the best I can do. There’s no way around it—using unverified computer output to determine who will govern us is indefensibly irrational.

To get the word out about the necessity for prompt verification and to demonstrate its practicality, the Wisconsin Election Integrity Action Team, for which I serve as coordinator, will be conducting public citizens’ audits of election results in Dane County after every election in 2016.

The first one is scheduled for March 12, at the South Central Federation of Labor Hall, 1602 S. Park St. in Madison. We’ll start the audit at 9 AM and continue until we’ve verified the Dane County outcome of the Supreme Court primary and at least two other contests—maybe around 4 PM. Anyone can drop by at any time to see the process and count votes right along with us.  Who knows, maybe soon we can convince the county elections officials to do this themselves, and I won’t have to worry about space aliens thinking we’re stupid.


5 thoughts on “Explaining Voting Machines to Space Aliens

  1. As a corollary to Karen’s point, I want to add something I’ve previously written about the issue of individual voter fraud:

    In recent years, a good deal of media attention and calls for electoral reform have been directed at the question of fraud committed by individual voters. All over the country states have passed restrictive photo voter identification (PVID) laws, among other reforms, that make it more difficult to vote, such as eliminating same-day registration and narrowing the opportunities for early voting. In the case of PVID reforms, citizens are required to have a driver’s license or other state-issued photo ID. If they do not have a driver’s license, they may be required to produce a birth certificate in order to obtain a state-issued ID. Critics of PVID laws think they discriminate against individuals who do not have a driver’s license, which is more pronounced among the poor, elderly, and racial-ethnic minorities. In the past, all that was necessary to confirm one’s eligibility was a check or utility bill confirming one’s address; now there are more legal hoops to jump through.

    Critics of PVID laws acknowledge inaccuracies in voter registration lists and anecdotal cases in which individuals have cast a vote when they were not qualified to do so. But they find little evidence that intentional voter fraud is widespread or that it has influenced any election in recent years. In her book The Myth of Voter Fraud, political scientist Lorraine Minnite reports on the results of her research in California, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Oregon. She writes:

    “The United States has a fragmented, inefficient, inequitable, complicated, and overly complex electoral process run on election day essentially by an army of volunteers. It is practically designed to produce irregularities in the administration: the number of voters signing the poll book do not exactly match the number of ballots case because of the unexpected crush of citizens who wanted to vote and the fact that a poll worker’s bathroom break was not covered; confused voters go here and there trying to cast their ballots in their precinct, the one they voted in eight years ago, only to find their wandering recorded as double votes; absentee ballots do not reach their rightful destination in time, causing anxious voters to show up at the polls where they are again recorded as voting twice; John Smith Sr. on line number twelve in the poll book signs for John Smith Jr. on thirteen…; voter registration applications go unacknowledged so voters send in duplicates, sometimes adding middle initial or a new last name.”

    Minnite also notes that most of the alleged incidents of voter fraud reported by the media come to their attention from partisan political operatives, yet for the most part “the multitude of alternative explanations for any one irregularity” is not investigated further. Testifying for the plaintiffs in a recent federal court case challenging the PVID law passed in Wisconsin, Minnite informed U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman of her research on elections in that state between 2004 and 2012 in which she could verify only one case of intentional voter fraud. After reviewing this and other evidence, Judge Adelman concluded:

    “The evidence at trial established that virtually no voter impersonation occurs in Wisconsin. The defendants could not point to a single instance of known voter impersonation occurring in Wisconsin at any time in the recent past. While there is no way to know how many of the 300,000 people who lack the acceptable photo ID will be deterred from voting because of the law, it is absolutely clear that [it] prevents more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes.”

    Similarly, in his research that was reported in the Washington Post, law professor Justin Levitt found only 31 credible cases anywhere in the country (out of more than one billion ballots cast) in which an individual showed up at the polls pretending to be someone else.

    In sum, as Karen has suggested, the main problem with the electoral process in the U.S. lies not with the ill intentions of individual voters but with the corruption in the administration of elections and the counting of votes.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Charles. That article is a good description of a very real current issue–fortunately, one that isn’t as much of a problem in Wisconsin than it is in some other states.

    It suffers, however, from the same blind spot that affects 99.9% of the reporting on elections technology: The author seems unaware that no matter how new or old the system, its ouput MUST BE CHECKED FOR ACCURACY. And that if you do that, you will get reliable election results no matter how old, new, cheap, or expensive your technology. Open source software and commercial off-the-shelf hardware won’t help if no one ever checks the output for accuracy. Dishonest insiders, hackers, and computer glitches will all still be on the same honor system they’re on now.

    Last night, our Waunakee/Westport grassroots group met at a local restaurant and I got to chatting with the owner, who asked for examples of the sorts of things our members get involved in. I, of course, starting in on election integrity. The man’s main interest in life is making great BBQ, but he knew enough about IT management to be aghast when I informed him that once he fed his ballot into the opscan, no human eyes were ever going to see it again.

    How does he know more about IT management than the authors of this article seem to? We were standing within sight of his computerized cash register. Every night, he reconciles the tape with the cash drawer–and would never DREAM of blowing off that critical task.


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