Does Your Vote Count? It Depends On Who’s Counting Your Votes

Originally published in The Tech on October 3, 2008

While the debate over who America will vote into the Oval Office is in full swing, so too is the discussion about how the voting will happen. The November elections will feature unprecedented levels and varieties of electronic voting.

Electronic voting encompasses a variety of technologies, including optical-scanning, Internet, and touch-screen systems.

Despite more complex security technology and new legislation that increases security requirements, experts debate over how, if it all, electronic voting should be implemented.

Improved technologies

MIT-affiliated experts consulted by The Tech generally agreed that electronic voting technologies have improved over the past several years.

Stephen D. Ansolabehere, professor at Harvard University’s School of Government, and former director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project said, “The systems do work, in the sense that they do operate reasonably well on Election Day and they do not produce wildly irregular results. Those who have looked at the numerical properties of vote tabulations find them to fit with the numerical properties one would expect from counting.”

Security is a concern in all forms of voting technology, he said.

“The security concerns raised with electronics are not exceptional,” said Ansolabehere. “It is easy to tamper with paper voting … by destroying ballots or substituting one set of ballots with another … Such problems on a wide scale led Brazil to adopt electronic voting,” he said.

Olivier Pereira, a Belgium-based cryptography specialist and a professor at the Université Catholique de Louvain who has worked as a visiting scientist in the Theory of Computation Group at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory several times over the past four years, “I think that e-voting offers many opportunities to have more reliable and arguably more trustworthy elections than what can typically be obtained with paper-only elections … Various levels of public and administrative verifiability are offered, which do not have counterparts in ‘standard’ paper-based voting systems.”

He cited recent systems used outside of nationwide elections that allow voters to verify that their votes were recorded correctly.

Ansolabehere said he thinks optical scan voting technologies have “shown superior reliability in tabulation and it can be recounted and reconciled,” while systems with no tangible record have “irrecoverable flaws owing to programming mistakes in formatting databases for vote tabulators.”

In a 2005 research paper, Ted Selker, former MIT professor and former directory of the VTP wrote that in the 2004 U.S. presidential election, “numerous pieces of evidence suggest that electronic voting machines outperformed all other methods used.”

According to Ansolabehere, the benefits of optical scanning also include ease of formatting ballots and accessibility for blind and non-English speakers.

Legal and business issues paramount

Many experts agree that logistical and legal issues surrounding electronic voting are at this point more challenging than refining the voting technologies themselves.

The real flaw with electronic voting in the United States is not any specific aspect of individual machines being used today, but the business model, said Ansolabehere.

“This industry is not conducive to innovation. Equipment is sold to individual counties and towns, and it is used for two decades. The firms attracted to this industry have not been those at the forefront of computing technology, and those that have come in, such as IBM and Unisys, have quickly gotten out,” he said.

“My general sense of this problem is that the security of all voting systems rests primarily with the personnel running elections and with the legal system,” said Ansolabehere.

Political Science Department Head and Professor Charles H. Stewart III sees political roadblocks in the implementation of electronic voting in elections.

“There is an interesting contradiction among many election reformers,” he said. “On the one hand, they often favor election reforms to make elections more accessible and convenient to more people. These reforms make voting much more complicated, and automation, including electronic machines, can help manage the complexity. However, reformers are also the most skeptical of using electronic tools to manage elections.”

“There is a fair amount of skepticism, especially among Democrats and people on the left,” he added. “The more complicated the election, the more automated they want the voting machine to be,” Stewart said.

“The type of election technologies that voters tend to favor are the ones that make it easier for voters who have disabilities, who are vision impaired. They want technologies that use automation to ensure these people’s votes are counted,” he said.

Pereira said that the deployment of electronic voting systems also often involves a lot of behaviors that cannot be matched easily with those of traditional paper-based voting, which makes such systems harder to reconcile with the various voting regulations and requires an important voter education step.

“I expect that an important stage for the practical deployment of those systems is their use in elections with lower stakes and risks than governmental elections. Such elections typically offer much more possibilities to modify the voting process and to educate voters, while providing important return and records that allow improving the usability of the systems and convincing the public of their interest.”

According to Pereira, there is also an important role for systems that allow voting over public electronic networks, such as the Internet. Such solutions allow people to vote from their home at the time they want without having to wait in long lines, improving the voter’s comfort and reducing the need for setting up large voting infrastructures.

However, he said that most researchers, including himself, think that these systems should not be used in circumstances where voters could be submitted to some forms of coercion, or when vote selling can be a concern.

Benjamin Mako Hill, a PhD candidate at the Sloan School of Management and a Research Fellow at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media is developing free software, called Selectricity, that he hopes will increase the popularity of web-based voting for non-governmental groups and organizations. The system supports anonymous and voter-verifiable balloting.

Describing what inspired Selectricity, Hill said it was almost a reaction to the VTP because, “the Caltech/MIT initiative is entirely based on technology for the election of governments and states, and government and state election technology is the least likely to be used,” he said.

“Governments are hesitant to use any technology. If it’s unusual and different, they fear that people might be confused,” he added. “Governments are incredibly conservative when it comes to e-voting technology.”

“We already have great election technology,” Hill said. “I’m interested in making technology that people will use more than once every four years, that’s relevant to the way we make decisions everyday.”