Thursday, March 09, 2006

another case for honest elections

Making Democracy Transparent

David Dill

March 07, 2006


David Dill is a professor of computer science at Stanford University and
founder and board director of the Verified Voting Foundation
<>. In 2004 he recieved the Electronic
Frontier Foundation's "Pioneer Award" for "spearheading and nurturing
the popular movement for integrity and transparency in modern elections."

Public trust in our elections is eroding. While the general public still
seems to accept election results, there is an undercurrent of bitterness
that has grown tremendously over the last few years. There is a rapidly
expanding body of literature on the Internet about the "stolen election
of 2004
and several books on election fraud have recently been written. More are
in the works.

Theories of widespread election fraud are highly debatable, to say the
least. Some people enjoy that debate. I do not. It encourages a sense of
hopelessness and consumes energy that could instead be focused on
long-term changes that could give us elections we can trust.

The election fraud debate frames the problem incorrectly. The question
should not be whether there is widespread election fraud. It should be:
"Why should we trust the results of elections?" It's not good enough
that election results be accurate. We have to know they are
accurate--and we don't.

In a word, elections must be transparent. People must be able to assure
themselves that the results are accurate through direct observation
during the election and examination of evidence afterwards.

U.S. elections are far from transparent. Instead, winning candidates and
election officials alike tend to put all their efforts into suppressing
recounts. That attitude has led to increasing bitterness with each
national election, at least since Florida 2000.

But we can conclusively win a debate about election transparency. And
while making elections more transparent will be difficult, it is more
feasible than solving many of our other national problems. All that is
required for success is a long-term strategy and a commitment from many
citizens at the grassroots level, since politicians and election
officials are not going to solve the problems on their own.

Here are some initial thoughts on how we can do it. I propose a four
part solution: We need to ensure that voting technology is transparent;
election procedures need to be rethought to emphasize openness, security
and checks and balances; election laws need to be revised to support
these points and to make it easy for candidates to get reliable, manual
recounts; finally, citizens need to participate in witnessing elections
and making sure they are conducted properly.

Questions about voting technology have been in the spotlight in the last
few years. The first concerns were about accuracy, inspired by the
problems with punch cards in the 2000 election. The supposed solution to
that problem lead to plans for the widespread adoption of paperless
electronic voting. But paperless e-voting is totally opaque--no one can
observe the handling of the (electronic) ballots. The hardware and
software of modern computer systems are designed and built by thousands
of specialists: Decades have passed since a single person could
comprehend an entire computer system. As a result, there is no way to
ensure that such voting systems are accurate or honest.

Right now, the only feasible solution to the insecurity of electronic
voting is a universal requirement for voter-verified paper records of
all ballots (VVPR). We also need to pass laws that enable candidates to
obtain manual recounts easily and inexpensively. There is now a national
movement to make sure this technology is used, and it's winning, slowly
but surely. Since the 2004 election, state after state
<> has passed laws requirement VVPRs, and
others have required VVPRs by administrative decree. In most states,
this is the result of grassroots activism by citizens groups with
support from national groups. A recent example of an outstanding success
is New Mexico's law
requiring paper ballots, marked by the voters, which was signed March 2.

There remains much to do on the technology front, including converting
hard-core e-voting states like Texas, Florida, and Georgia to VVPR (or,
better, adopting a nationwide law, such as the one proposed by Rep. Rush
Holt in the House or the one proposed by Sen. John Ensign). Also, the
system for certifying voting technology at the state and national level
is completely broken. But these problems can be solved with time and
dedicated activism.

Election procedures need much greater attention, from the storage of
equipment before an election to the storage of ballots after the last
recount. Currently, inadequately tested voting machines break down on
Election Day. Uncertified and sometimes buggy software is routinely
used. Votes are counted behind closed doors. Machines and ballots are in
the custody of a single individual, and are sometimes misplaced.
Recounts are conducted with rules that are often made up on the spot.

Detailed election procedures need to be defined, taking into account the
differences between jurisdictions (including differences in technology).
These procedures need to be followed rigorously, even in remote
locations with underfunded and understaffed election offices. Procedures
need to be improved from election to election, and experiences with new
procedures need to be shared among different election offices.

Many of the reforms in technology and procedures need to be codified in
election law, including requiring VVPRs. There should be a law requiring
the mandatory auditing of election results by manually counting paper
ballots from a random sample of the precincts. Routine manual audits
depoliticize recounts because they do not have to be requested by a
candidate, and because they must occur regardless of whether an election
is close or which candidate won. With routine audits, election problems
can be discovered and addressed when the outcome of the election is not
in dispute.

It is critical that candidates (or, even better, members of the public)
be able to obtain manual recounts easily and inexpensively. In recent
years, putative winners of close elections have often alluded the "chaos
in Florida 2000" for the purpose of suppressing a recount. Recounts
conducted under clear rules would not be so chaotic. It is simple common
sense to take a close look at the ballots when there is a question about
an election. A little cost or effort to satisfy a disgruntled candidate
(and his or her supporters) pays huge dividends for democracy.

Finally, these improvements will have little effect unless citizens are
more involved in elections. Citizens have to generate grassroots
pressure for reforms. There need to be observers to take advantage of
any increased openness in election procedures. Indeed, many procedural
improvements depend on the presence of independent witnesses to be
effective. Citizens need to be see what procedures are actually followed
in an election, and compare that with the procedures that should be
followed. We have seen time and time again that election laws are
routinely ignored--unless someone is watching.

Many of our current problems stem from a "quick-fix" attitude--leading
to fresh problems, such as the idea that new touch-screen machines would
solve all our election woes. To have the kind of elections we need will
take hard work and many years, and there will be setbacks along the
way. But if we follow a long-term plan, we'll see that each election is
better than the previous


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