Election Theory - How to assure a fair election

From: Dennis Paull <dpaull_at_svpal_dot_org>
Date: Thu Sep 11 2003 - 12:27:00 CDT

How to assure a fair election
by Dennis Paull

How can we assure a fair election will be carried out without each side
having to trust everyone else involved?

Trust appears to be the key term here. We all want fair elections,
don't we? And, being intrinsically suspicious, we all don't trust anyone
else to not cheat. So what can be done?

The answer is election transparency. Keep all the procedures open to
all concerned parties and trust will be greatly enhanced.

For a small group, and assuming a secret ballot, we take all the ballots
and open them one at a time so everyone can see them and agree on how
the voter voted. We make the tallies open so we can see how the vote is
progressing. There might be some discussion on who is eligible to vote,
but when past that small matter (grin) we get on to the count.

As groups get bigger, we might create a 'tellers committee', with members
representing all interested parties, to count the votes. We have appointed
representatives from all sides to carry out the count in a fair manner.
This has required us to trust our representatives on the committee to
truly represent our concerns. The tellers then count the ballots while
the rest of us go about other business.

For even bigger groups it gets more complicated. Our procedures depend
on the consequences of the election. The more difference that the choice
of the winner makes, and the more untrusting the various advocates are,
the more important the choice of voting procedures becomes.

In some cases, say the election of a Board of Directors of a large company,
a private firm is hired to count the votes. That firm is bonded and must
have all the appearances of freedom from conflict of interest.

In the cases of publicly elected bodies, we generally elect or appoint
a person to carry out the vote count and we agree that in the case of a
concern about the results, we can elect a new person to run the next

In any case, there are always ways to challenge the count and do a
recount if any one side feels that the count wasn't carried out
according to the established rules.

At least that's how we used to do it. What is happening now?

As technology has advanced, the mechanism for counting votes has become
more complex. There seem to be more items to vote on as well, as society
has become more complex.

So we elect or appoint a Registrar to run our elections, but this
person usually has many other responsibilities and often can not afford
the time to become an expert in all aspects of election operation,
especially in smaller jurisdictions. To save time and money, certain
aspects of election management are contracted out to private firms.
This includes supplying voting machines, managing district and precinct
lines, composing and printing ballots and writing computer software
to manage the whole process. Further, these firms supply support services
in case problems occur, before, during and following elections.

All this would be fine except that our ideal of transparency is

With the latest round of voting machines, we have lost key elements of
the visibility that partisans had into voting procedures. We are asked,
more and more, to "Trust Us, we are doing this election right". We no
longer ask the firms who support our county election officials to
'guarantee' that all procedures are followed. We no longer have paper ballots to recount when questions arise. Equipment is so complicated
(for good reasons) that ordinary persons can not see how they work and
therefore cannot gain confidence in their working correctly. We call on
certification but there is no way to see how specific equipment is
tested or which vendors have better equipment than others.

And most importantly, there is no longer any call for vendors to be
subject to conflict of interest restrictions. In fact, it is just the
opposite. We have vendors whose officers are running for elected office
using their own company's equipment to count the votes.

I believe that we need to change our whole approach to elections. We
need to re-instate transparency, to re-instate conflict of interest
laws for everyone involved in elections and to remove the need to trust
anyone because any citizen can understand how elections work and all the
results, including intermediate vote counts, are public.

Further, I suggest that each agency that buys election related products
owns full rights to those products. The vendors need not have any
proprietary interest that would justify keeping any part private.
Privacy and transparency cannot co-exist. All partisans should have the
right to inspect any part of the election process to assure themselves
that it counts votes in a fair and accurate manner.

If it takes experts to evaluate the equipment and procedures, so be it.
All partisans should have the right to hire their own experts to do the
evaluations. Further, all testing and certification should be public,
at least for equipment that is declared to be acceptable. We should not
be required to trust the certifiers either.

There are many desirable voter convenience features in the latest class
of voting machines and I wouldn't want to eliminate any of them. They
very well may increase the voters inclination to vote and accept the
results. But there is also no reason to increase the distrust of most
voters in exchange for the convenience of others. We need to build trust
in all voters that elections serve everyone and that trust must be

If you haven't yet read it, I refer you to Doug Jones' paper at:

Dennis Paull
229 Correas Ave.
Half Moon Bay, CA
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Received on Tue Sep 30 23:17:03 2003

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