In about three weeks in America, we will hear the cheers of victory and the groans of defeat as one presidential candidate will reign supreme and be in line to become the 44th president of the United States. We will also hear the jeers and cries of “voter fraud!”
It’s hardly surprising. Local and regional political forces have always tried the best they could to manipulate results…often without any actual proof that wrongdoing occurred. Al Capone’s famous, “Vote early, vote often,” is a phrase often employed when shenanigans are suspected…even before they happen. The 2000 election, with the “hanging chads” and the (in)famous Supreme Court decision has left lingering a sour taste in the nation’s metaphorical mouth about the validity of our election system.
Following 2000, calls for reform were heard across the land. In the elections since then we’ve seen a variety of new voting methods emerge, some more trusted than others. Through it all, one thing has emerged as obvious: pure electronic voting, with no easily verifiable hardcopy backup, is simply a recipe for mischief and disaster. In order to try to maintain voter confidence in these sorts of machines, a lot of statistical redundancy has to be added to the voting procedures without an assurance that anything will actually work. Much of this is caused by the mistaken impression that if it seems “hi-tech” then it must be better.
I’ve thought about how to construct a reliable electronic voting machine. It has to have dedicated controllers, two different methods of hard-copy and verification both during and after the voting process, and yadda yadda yadda. Basically you can end up with a very stable yet very expensive voting machine that requires a power supply in order to work and mucho security to remain secure.
Still, there has to be some method between a hand-written paper ballot and a sci-fi monstrosity that can be inexpensively implemented across the country, that is flexible enough to handle to various local ballots, and which is accessible to the voters with a minimum of effort. It turns out that there is one: optical scan.
People in the United States are very familiar with Scantron® (or fill-in the bubble, hereafter referred to as “optical scan”) technology. It has been used on scholastic standardized tests for decades. With some set procedures in place, this can be a very flexible and relatively safe voting method.
- You enter the voting station with your voter ID card (or acceptable ID if your situation prevented receiving a VID card).
- Upon verification of your ID, an optical scan ballot is printed out (ideally using special ink and/or paper) which contains the ballot as well as encrypted verification of who you are and when the ballot was printed.
- You fill out your ballot. If you make a mistake, go to step 6
- You take your ballot to a pre-scan station where you scan in your ballot to ensure the information entered is the information you intend. If there is no error, you will receive a human- and computer-readable printout of your selections. If there is an error, go to step 6
- You take your ballot and pre-scanned printout to the scanning station where your voterID will be confirmed against the documents, your printout is officially scanned by you and automatically entered into the official vote box. You then place your ballot into the ballot box (for backup). Each of the boxes are sealed have have two tracking devices enclosed. You are done.
- If there is an error with filling out, printing, scanning, or other with a ballot, it is taken to an error station where the ballot will be invalidated using a similarly encrypted voter ID verification and placed in an invalid-ballot storage box. The voter then receives a new ballot and then goes back to Step 3.
This system allows the voter to maintain control of their vote as much as possible while also allow for some one-way electronic tallying of the votes. More importantly, it gives two hard-copy instances of the recorded votes, both still human- and electronically- readable in the event of a recount. Plus (and this is the thing I really like), this system can still be used, manually, in those areas without power. Sure, the votes have to be hand-counted, but it’s better than being stuck with a lot of electronic (i.e. power requiring) voting machines and no way to vote.
Can this system be broken? Of course it can. Any system devised by humans can be circumvented by humans. There is an element of good-faith involved. But not too much good-faith, given the ballot box tracking devices. The thing is that this system has the sort of flexibility required for the types of election days we have in the United States, accommodates the most number of people, inconveniences the fewest, and is sufficiently straight-forward that it fosters public trust. Perhaps most importantly: it’s about as inexpensive as you are going to get. There are fewer machines to break (printers and scanners), and allows for errors to be corrected before the votes are officially cast under the eyes of both officials and voters alike.
Unfortunately, there is still quite the pastiche of voting methods around the country…even within states. Clearly the situation is ripe for some misbehavin’. I’d like to think that if there were a national voting machine standard, then it would be easier to manage and verify elections. It’s time that America gets its electoral house in order, if only because it makes it easier to point fingers at others