Sunday, May 29, 2005

My war against the machines

Lambert at Corrente has a story about how Miami Dade is dumping the paperless machines. It says:
Miami-Dade County's elections chief has recommended ditching its ATM-style voting machines, just three years after buying them for $24.5 million to avoid a repeat of the hanging and dimpled chads from the 2000 election.

Elections supervisor Lester Sola said in a memo Friday that the county should switch to optical scanners that use paper ballots, based on declining voter confidence in the paperless touch-screen machines and quadrupled election day labor costs.

On the face of it, that sounds like a real victory - and, to some extent, it is, because at least there is a paper trial with the optical scanner system, if there is a recount.

And that's where the real problem lies, because a paper trail is meaningless if no one ever looks at it. The initial count of optical-scan ballots is done by machine, and if you fiddle the machine count - which you obviously can - so that no race is close enough to require a recount, no one will ever know. There is ample evidence that exactly this may have happened in 2004. Note that the graph I reproduced here shows that, while hand-counts produced discrepancies with exit poll results of well under a percentage point, optical scanners gave us around 5% - better than for other machine-dependent methods, but still not so good, and definitely enough to throw an election. Certainly it's all you need to cast a victory as being by a wide enough margin that no one asks for a recount.

See, if all those ballots from optical-scan machines were actually reviewed, we might find that there was no difference between the exit polls and the actual votes - that is, that the machines had been tweaked to give a false result.

But since no one ever demanded a hand-count of those ballots, it's unlikely that we'll ever know.

And that's why I'm unimpressed with mere "paper trails". Evidence is worthless if no one ever looks at it - and competently stealing an election just means making sure there is never a re-count. Functionally speaking, there is no difference between an election that can't be recounted and one that won't be recounted.

Which is why we need paper ballots that are publicly hand-counted on site, on the night. If we don't actually see the ballots being individually counted, we don't know that they have been counted properly.