Report from UC Santa Cruz Forum on Electronic Voting

From: Alan Dechert <adechert_at_earthlink_dot_net>
Date: Mon Oct 27 2003 - 12:27:10 CST

Yesterday was a long day! Besides spending almost 6 hours driving (3 hrs
each way), the forum lasted 6 (six!) hours (12:30 - 6:30). We had an
abundance of good speakers.

Besides 5 scheduled live presentations, there was a taped presentation from
the League of Women Voters (thankfully fairly short) plus Bob Kibrick and
Arthur Keller did some editorializing. In addition, there were many
eloquent speakers from the audience that took the time to give speeches.
The audience included more than a few computer scientists and engineers. I
would describe others in the audience as activists from various
organizations (including people from the Democratic party and the Green
Party) and concerned citizens.

One of the audience members was Shawn Casey O'Brien, Executive Director,
Unique People's Voting Project who came all the way from Southern
California. He spoke passionately and eloquently AGAINST the voter-verified
paper ballot since he believed that it would compromise the right of
disabled people to vote privately and unassisted (also the basis of the LWV
opposition -- included in the taped statement). Arthur invited him to be
part of the panel at the end. I think I gave a strong counter to his claim,
and I hope our side gained some with this exchange.

Ryan Coonerty and Joe Simitian couldn't stay for the panel discussion (which
started over an hour behind schedule) but with Shawn Casey O'Brien, David
Dill and Warren Slocum we had plenty of panelists and lively discussion.

I passed out about 25 copies of the printed sample ballot
( ) including the
"privacy folder" (file folders cut to 8 X 12 inches, in which the samples
were placed). It really helped drive the point home. Thanks again to Jan
for getting this done in time for the forum.

I was glad to see several EVM2003 team members there. Ed Cherlin drove from
Cupertino and Dennis Paull came from Half Moon Bay. Dennis joined us for
dinner at a very good Chinese restaurant (Omei) along with Bob Kibrick and
Arthur Keller. Ed and Dennis both contributed to the discussion -- there
was always a long line of people from the audience at the microphone. While
the forum ran over by a long shot, actually there were many questions I
would have like to have had more time to answer. Although some might be
tempted to criticize Arthur for his time-management, it was a challenge to
keep it from running much longer still.

We definitely gained some support and exposure there.

FYI, here is what I said. The text is below and I have also posted an html
copy here:

Good afternoon. I thank all of you for coming. I am glad to be here.
Thanks also to Bob Kibrick and Arthur Keller for their work in organizing
this forum. I also want to say thank you to all the others at UC Santa Cruz
that helped make this possible, and to all the other forum speakers.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a problem. Our voting system is broken. It
does not need to be repaired, however. It needs to be replaced. We don't
need to upgrade our voting system. We need to replace it. We don't just
need some new voting machines. We need a whole new idea for how to
administer public elections.

This afternoon, I will describe the work some of us are doing to bring about
a better system. But first, I want to take a few minutes to set the context.

Sovereignty is the right to decide. Sovereignty means the right to decide.

In a democracy, sovereignty is ... distributed. In a democracy, sovereignty
is distributed, while you -- the individual citizen -- retain most of this
right to decide.

We share this right. We distribute sovereignty. The system for distributing
sovereignty is called democracy. In a democracy, we distribute sovereignty
through our system of laws. The voting system is part of the system whereby
we share our right to decide. Sometimes, we vote to decide on specific
issues. But mostly we vote for people who will make decisions for us.

While democracies all share the rule-of-law concept, they vary widely on
voting systems. In the U.S., it seems that we vote on everything. We vote
for everything from President to dogcatcher. We vote on a lot of

We tend to consolidate the administration of elections. While we're
electing federal officials, we say, "Let's put state and local contests on
the same ballot with them." This is very unusual. Only the Swiss do
something similar. In most democracies, you vote for your Member of
Parliament and that's it, at the national level. Local elections are
separate and may be administered -- as in Canada -- with different rules and
different equipment by different entities.

Is our system more democratic because we put more things on the ballot? Not
necessarily. It is not practical to present every issue to the people for
vote - no government even attempts to do that. The vast majority of
political jobs are still appointed. Something like 2,000 jobs were at stake
in the recent contest for Governor of California. Democracy is not
proportional to the number of offices and issues on which the people vote.

Do we really need so many elected offices, anyway? An idea going back to
ancient Greece suggests maybe not. Most officials were chosen by sortition:
They were chosen by lottery from a pool of qualified individuals.

Our voting system varies within the United States. Voting systems vary from
state-to-state and county-to-county. Warren Slocum is the chief of
elections for San Mateo County. He was elected: most of his counter- parts
in other counties were appointed.

In January of 2001, I attended a hearing conducted by the State Assembly's
Elections committee. Some of the testimony was incredible. One of the many
horror stories had to do with a man that was not registered to vote where he
lived on one Election Day, and was given a provisional ballot. For some
reason, he seemed to like voting with the provisional ballot. So, rather
than re-registering, year-after-year he voted a provisional ballot. Only
one problem: his votes were never counted. We can only speculate why he
didn't want to be in the normal voter file; but sometimes voter lists have
been used for marketing, and they are also used to find people for jury
duty. There are several reasons someone might like not to be on the list
but still be able to vote. Anyway, after a few years, the elections people
recognized his signature by sight but it was against their policy to inform
owners of provisional ballots whether or not their vote was accepted. Year
after year, his vote was thrown out. Now, how dumb is this system?

At least in Iowa, if you go to the polls to vote and you're not on the
roster, they will give you a provisional ballot but they will also make sure
you get registered to vote at the same time.

Voters should not be disenfranchised by the voting system. By voter
disenfranchisement I am talking about cases where votes are not counted the
way the voter intended, or the vote was not counted at all, or the voter was
discouraged from voting altogether -- even though registered to vote.
Furthermore, I am talking about cases where potential voters were
discouraged from registering to vote.

If we're going to have voter registration -- and it's not clear to me that
we need it -- it should not be an obstacle for voters. But currently, it is
an obstacle.

In Georgia, in order to vote you have register by the 4th Friday before
Election Day. In Ohio, the deadline is 30 days. In Iowa, it's 10 days
before any Primary or General election, but 11 days for other elections.
It's the 3rd Saturday before in Vermont, but you only have until noon to get
your paperwork into the town clerk. In North Dakota, they do not have voter
registration. In Idaho, the deadline is 25 days before Election Day but
then you can register on Election Day itself. What if you moved from Idaho
to California a week or two before Election Day? You might think you would
still be able to register on Election Day. You would be out of luck.
Rarely an issue, you say? Consider that almost one million Americans move
in any given week. Over a million voters could be impacted by the logistics
of moving while having "register-to-vote" on a long to-do list.

At a minimum, Election Day registration should be universal. In the long
run, we should investigate how we can eliminate voter registration
altogether. Afterall, if you are a citizen of voting age and you meet all
the requirements, you are also in many databases. Why have another database
that has serious maintenance issues for the voters as well as state and
county governments?

As I see it, voter registration, provisional ballots, and a whole lot of the
other rigmarole and gobbledygook are artifacts of the 20th century - before
the Internet and before the personal computer. In this new century, every
polling place should be securely connected to the Internet. Studies have
shown that while you will probably never be able to vote remotely over the
Internet unattended, it should be possible to vote over the Internet at poll
sites where your identity can be confirmed. We should look at this as a
possible replacement for current absentee ballot methods.

In the wake of the election mess in 2000, the presidents of Caltech and MIT
launched a project they hoped would bring about a solution to the voting
system ... conundrum. Their December 14th 2000 press release was titled,
"Caltech and MIT Join Forces to Create Reliable, Uniform Voting System."
Note the word, "uniform." In other words, they noticed - like most of us -
the great variety of faulty procedures. Then they said, "Let's create new
voting technology, test it thoroughly ... make it bullet proof ... then use
the same equipment and procedures everywhere." Why not have a uniform
system? Why have all these daffy different ways of doing the same thing?
Why not find one way that really works and use that?

Quoting the beginning of the press release,

     The presidents of MIT and Caltech have announced
     a collaborative project to develop an easy-to-use,
     reliable, affordable and secure United States
     voting machine that will prevent a recurrence of
     the problems that threatened the 2000 presidential

Okay, so they wanted to develop a U.S. voting machine. It sounds like they
started with a really good idea. But now, almost three years later, where's
their voting machine? Where is this technology they were talking about?
This is not rocket science, folks. Maybe that's the problem. Caltech and
MIT are good at rocket science. They know how to do that. But the
obstacles here are mainly political. The voting system represents a
significant technical challenge, but it's mainly applied science.
Technically, this is not horribly difficult. Politically, it is a pain.

Of course, I think they had the right idea. In fact, I published a similar
idea about the same time as their announcement. Before you ask, "Okay, now,
three years later, where's Alan Dechert's voting machine?", let me make this
point: I am critical of Caltech and MIT researchers because they started
with a lot of money and tremendous institutional support. They did not
follow through with the idea. I started with none of these resources.
Maybe you will say, "He's just envious." And maybe that's it: I'm just
envious of their resources. But the fact is that when it comes to the idea
of a uniform system and a U.S. voting machine, I have moved the idea forward
while they have not. I also incorporated the open source concept and the
voter-verified printed ballot. Caltech/MIT never embraced these ideas.
They abandoned the idea of a uniform system and chose to work with existing
vendors in effort to improve voting systems.

There is still a Caltech/MIT voting project and they are doing some good
work - uncovering information and helping to improve things here and there.
But it is not the magnificent work they set out to accomplish.

I am developing the Open Voting Consortium as a durable organization to
develop, transfer, and maintain this new voting technology. There is no need
for expensive dedicated hardware: we can use inexpensive off-the-shelf
commodity PCs and peripherals, while utilizing free software. Once our open
voting system becomes established, the persistent issue of how to replace
obsolete hardware will be gone forever. Usually, we're happy to pay a
little more to get something better. It happens that our system will be
much better, but also much much cheaper.

A secure, reliable, trustworthy, and affordable voting system is an
essential feature of a successful democracy. A voter-verified paper ballot
is an essential feature of a successful voting system.

To give you an idea of what your ballot may look like in the future, I've
passed out some samples in folders like this [hold up sample]. With our
system, you print the ballot yourself on ordinary eight-and-a-half by eleven
paper in the voting booth, and then place it in a privacy folder like this.
You'll notice about half an inch of the ballot is exposed. The exposed
border has the barcode, but no other printing.

This part of our demonstration system -- the ballot printing function -- is
done. It's on the Internet, and available for anyone try out.

This is what we mean by a voter-verified printed ballot. You go to the
computer; make your selections; print it out with the touch of a button, and
look to verify that these are the selections you intended to make. If not,
you can destroy this one and start over. No problem. There are no hanging
chads, no ambiguous marks. No voter intent issues - it's all written out
very clearly.

What if because of some disability you can't read the ballot? First of all,
you would have voted at a station where all the selections were presented
orally through headphones, much like the way existing electronic systems
work. Unlike existing systems, however, you would have an opportunity to
actually verify how your vote was recorded. It is not possible to verify
your vote on existing electronic voting machines -- visually or otherwise.
Anyone claiming voter verifiability for these paperless systems is telling
fairy tales. At best, all you can get is some indication that the machine
knows what selections you want to make. This may or may not have anything
to do with how your vote gets recorded. With our system, even if you can't
read it, you will print the ballot just like everyone else. If you want to
verify your ballot, you can go to a station with a scanner, and have the
barcode scanned while you're wearing headphones so you can hear your
selections read to you. The ballot does not have to be removed from the
folder: Your privacy is assured. Then you go to the ballot box and deposit
your ballot like everyone else.

Right now, we also have the software available for download that will take
the encoded information from the barcode and read back the selections. If
you want to try that out, it's available. We'll have a full demonstration
of our system ready in a few weeks.

In summary, while technology has taken great strides forward in recent
decades, the voting system has not kept up. The problem of modernizing the
system has been routinely underestimated. It's very complicated.

The technical complexity is routinely underestimated, but we know how to do
it. It is the political complexity that boggles the mind and tests our
resolve. But our team is meeting this challenge!

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Received on Fri Oct 31 23:17:05 2003

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