Monday, March 23, 2009

Election corruption in Kentucky

There's been a number of reports of election corruption in Kentucky. The indictment is long, but it describes how local officials in Clay County Kentucky used a number of schemes, including paying voters for their votes and tricking voters into walking away from electronic voting machines (DREs) before their vote had been cast. Matt Blaze has a very nice writeup on what the indictment really means.

The critical things that have been missed by some of the hysterical discussions (e.g., Brad Friedman) are that:
  1. Much of the corruption could have happened regardless of the technology in use. Vote buying far predates DREs.
  2. Auditing wouldn't really help - there were no software attacks, and about the only thing that could have helped is if a pattern were noticed in the audit logs (i.e., perhaps a higher-than-expected percentage of voters appeared to go back from the summary screen and change their votes, in the case where the election officials were telling voters to walk away too soon).
  3. Paper ballots wouldn't help - the same types of vote buying and stealing can happen with paper ballots. When I was a pollworker in November 2008, many voters handed me their optical scan ballots and walked away (I stopped them) instead of verifying that their ballot was read into the scanner. If I wanted, I could have replaced their ballots with ballots I marked, in just the same way as the Kentucky officials changed voters votes.
The real message to be reinforced from this indictment is that election officials, like any other community, has some bad actors. Honest elections require an element of trust in the voting officials; this case proves that the trust isn't always deserved. This shouldn't be surprising, as every organization, including places like the CIA and FBI, have had their share of corrupt insiders.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fairfax County elections in the news again

While the rest of the country (except Minnesota) is taking a break from elections, it's still election time here in Virginia. Tuesday was a special election to fill a vacancy in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors (roughly the equivalent of a city council). The vacancy was caused when the former member was elected chair of the Board of Supervisors (roughly the mayor) in a special election in February. That vacancy was caused when the former chair was elected to Congress in November. A domino election, one might say.

But even simple elections aren't simple. Last night, things were unclear, as reported in The Washington Post. Today, I spent the day in the canvass, and things became a lot clearer.

In this election, there were 25 precincts, and 2 voting machines per precinct. All machines in question were made by Advanced Voting Solution (AVS), and are Windows-based touchscreens called WinVote. (AVS is out of business, as I've noted here before, and although another company is supposedly maintaining the machines, there's not much recourse for failure.) Unlike some other recent Fairfax County elections, there were no optical scans, except for absentee ballots.

In one of the precincts, there were two anomalous results:

First, on one of the two machines in this particular precinct, the zero tape showed the "public counter" having zero votes (which is as it should be), and then showed three votes for Mr. Cook, two for Mr. Moon, one for Mr. Campbell, and one write-in. That's the pattern Fairfax County uses for L&A testing. But how was it possible to reset the public counter after L&A testing without also resetting the vote totals?

Second, at the end of the day, the two machines synchronize via Wi-Fi (the same technology we use at home and in hotels), and then the master machine prints its own vote totals and the
combined vote totals. It showed a total of 359 votes cast (which would be about right for one machine in this low turnout election), of which 377 were for Mr. Cook, 328 for Mr. Moon, 15 for Mr. Campbell, and 3 write-ins, for a total of 723 votes. Yes, you read that right - 359 votes, but 723 recorded. And there were only 707 voters in the precinct, so it's not like it did the totals for the races but not the overall total. So clearly the per-candidate totals are wrong, and they don't add up to the total number of votes.

The "solution" was to bring up both machines in the precinct (one at a time), have them print their totals, then have them print the "ballot images" (which I put in quotes because they're the software representation of the ballot images), and add those up by hand. When they did that, the number of votes on the two machines combined equaled the number of voters who checked in at the polls, and for each machine the number of voters equaled the sum of the number of votes for the candidates. All of which makes perfect sense... except that it doesn't explain in any way the discrepancies.

Finally, one other piece of data: Virginia law says that in a case of machine malfunction, the board of elections is required to follow the instructions in the manual provided by the vendor. I got a chance to see the manual - it's totally silent on what to do. This had the Dem lawyer quite unhappy, since it meant that they're ignoring the law.

Shortly after the canvass completed, the Democrat conceded. He was 90 votes behind out of about 12,000 cast. Given Virginia's extremely restrictive recount law, I think that was the right decision - but it leaves unresolved what went wrong with the voting machines.

My one hope is that once again both parties will see the dangers of DREs - it was really a coin toss which side would win in such a close race without anything meaningful to look at.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Micro-economics - is the economy really *that* bad?

I read the newspapers like everyone else, but here's a micro-indicator I just received: "The cookie depots are facing unprecedented demand. Depot transactions are up 27% and the size of each transaction is much larger than last year. We have increased our deliveries to depots this year by 104% yet still stock levels are extremely low in all depots. Cookies are being rushed to us from the bakery as we speak since we have cleaned out, once again, the local supply."

Or in non-Girl Scout speak: cookie sales in the Washington DC area are up sharply. Is that because people are giving up luxuries and buying cookies? Is the DC area relatively unscathed? Or is the economy just not as bad as the media is reporting?