Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 11, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

SATURDAY BOWEN BLOGGING....Along with a few other LA-based bloggers I had dinner last night with Debra Bowen, who's running for California Secretary of State this year. She was very impressive: technically literate, very knowledgable about voting technologies (electronic voting, absentee voting, audit trails, etc.), and genuinely dedicated to transparency and citizen access to state information. She explained why legislation to require open source software for voting machines is likely to fail (Microsoft doesn't like it) and why simple, reliable technologies like SAT-style optical mark ballots are a nonstarter these days (the HAVA act requires that disabled voters be able to cast ballots without assistance, and since county registrars don't want to deal with two different technologies it means most of them default to e-voting for everyone).

All in all, an informative and enjoyable evening. But most impressive of all was this: When I introduced myself, Bowen's first words were, "Oh! Friday cat blogging." Now that's a politician who knows her constituency! Inkblot, who thinks America's voting problems could be solved by extending the franchise to cats, was so impressed that he even roused himself momentarily to peek outside the sock drawer he slept in last night. Then he went back to sleep.

Kevin Drum 1:17 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (41)

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Now there's an ego boost (I guess).

Posted by: Linkmeister on February 11, 2006 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

Did Bowen express any thoughts on IRV or other similar sytems that would help make grassroot voices stronger in elections?

Just wondering what her postion on these kinds of isses might be.


Posted by: Liano on February 11, 2006 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

Does keeping cats live in the drawers rather than in the freezer make them taste better?

Posted by: McA on February 11, 2006 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

Liano: No, the conversation was mostly about technology and ways of preventing electoral fraud. The Secretary of State doesn't have any say in the type of voting system used, so it didn't come up.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on February 11, 2006 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

"Technically literate" is hardly a ringing endorsement -- after all, Dubya meets the low threshold of "technically literate," too.

(Just kidding, I know what you meant.)

Posted by: aplomb on February 11, 2006 at 1:35 PM | PERMALINK

You don't think they could have had support for evoting in mind when they wrote the unassisted handicap provision into the bill, do you? When did the concern for handicapped voters surface? And who pushed it?

Posted by: ferd on February 11, 2006 at 1:45 PM | PERMALINK

So HAVA was written by the direct electronic voting lobby? scary

If you're blind or lack hands you're going to have problems with optical scan and touch screen voting. If you lack fine motor control touch screen might be easier. Do these people really outnumber the blind? Do they hire better lobbyists?

Why don't they just have a brail/text/photo optical scan ballot you can mark with an ink pad and your thumb.

Posted by: ranaaurora on February 11, 2006 at 1:46 PM | PERMALINK

Wait a minute!! Surely there are plenty of handicapped voters who, even with evoting machines in place, can't vote unassisted!
What about quadraplegics, for example?

Posted by: ferd on February 11, 2006 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK


More than that, Karl has promised to teach me lmth next week.

Posted by: George W on February 11, 2006 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

I've said this in a couple other voting technology threads- what we need is what I call electronic-assisted voting. It's touch screen evoting, but then instead of directly recording the vote with no paper trail it prints out an SAT-like ballot marked for you. You can check it, then it goes into the optical scanner, providing a paper trail. There is no connection at all between the computers and the vote tallying, so no hacking possible- essentially, the computers are really expensive pencils to prevent people from making mistakes. Even better, if you have a situation like in Ohio where you don't have enough machines, you can use the old fashioned version and instantly expand your voting capacity by going to Staples and buying a 12 pack of #2 pencils.

Posted by: SP on February 11, 2006 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

If Canada can hand vote on paper, and hand count, out in plain sight, and get it all done in a few hours, then we can too.

Yes, we have many more voters than Canada, but we have many more counters, too.

And you don't have to wait in long lines because your disctrict only has a few voting machines. Spread out enough tables so 50, or 100 can vote at a time on paper ballots.

Paper vote, Hand count. Out in the open for all to see.

Posted by: ferd on February 11, 2006 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

OK -- so I guess DRE systems have some sort of audio feedback.

I think the blind would probably be happier getting assistance or using a tactile ballot than waiting in line for 8 hours for a DRE system. And there are always other solutions like this:


Posted by: B on February 11, 2006 at 2:16 PM | PERMALINK

Many e-vote-and-paper-audit models only work if there is an election close enough for a recount, or there's some discrepancy in sample precincts, and therefore the paper trail is examined.

If you can control the selection of sample precincts (friendly Sec. State?), and keep then clean, you can jigger the rest of the precincts to your heart's desire.

If you can steal enough to generate a 60-40 blowout, you can avoid any automatic-recount trigger set to catch close elections. All you need is a plausible cover story for why the outcome changed at the last minute. Easier still if you ban exit polling...

Ferd's right. Some other way to accommodate the handicapped must be found. I fear the disabled are being used to Trojan-horse the whole process.

Posted by: Al trainee #27 on February 11, 2006 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

India used to do half-a-billion voters, all paper, all results in less than a week. Their elections weren't perfect, to be sure, but a real finger-in-the-eye to the assumptions underlying HAVA.

(Of course India has now decided to go the e-vote route, too...)

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on February 11, 2006 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

How is it that Oregon continues to hold elections by mail, using paper ballots? This practice must be in violation of HAVA. Certainly it wouldn't work in Georgia, where voters are required to show photo ID.

Posted by: Dave on February 11, 2006 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

Do you always shove your cats into a drawer when you go out, Kev?

I guess it would keep them from scratching up the furniture...

Posted by: grape_crush on February 11, 2006 at 2:42 PM | PERMALINK

Haven't you ever had a cat go cupboard exploring ? They go everywhere just because they can.

Posted by: opit on February 11, 2006 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

Debra Bowen is my State Senator. She has said in the past that term limits opened up the opportunity for her to first get elected to the State Legislature. But now she's being termed out of the Senate. So she is, I guess, the embodiment of the good and bad of term limits.

Yeah, as we have all learned, Secretary of State is an important postition. But I wish Debra were staying in the legislature. And I can't help but think she's just biding time, waiting for Jane Harman or Dianne Feinstein to retire.

Whatever the office, I'll be voting for her.

Posted by: Robert Earle on February 11, 2006 at 2:58 PM | PERMALINK

Like SP says, use electronic voting machines that also print out a card with the choices clearly printed on it, and able to be optically-scanned. Voter checks it over, and then shoves the card into a normal locked ballot box at the voting site. Later, officials lock them away where normal ballot boxes go. If there's any problem with the e-vote, pull out the ballot boxes and do conventional recounts. If everybody's happy with the e-count, just keep the ballots stored away like regular ones.

This has all the advantages of the speed of e-voting, with everything you need for good recounts, including precise, machine-printed ballots that are not going to be subject to oddball markings and "hanging chads," and can be counted manually if necessary.

Geez, how hard can this be? It's basically connecting a printer to a computer.

Posted by: tbrosz on February 11, 2006 at 3:12 PM | PERMALINK

....and now my cats want to sleep in the sock drawer!

Thanks, Kevin. Thanks a lot.

Posted by: jcricket on February 11, 2006 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK

It has been my pleasure to be represented by Debra for the past 14 years. She is a good fit for Sec. of State. As we have leraned from Florida and Ohio this position is too important to not have a honest, competent person holding it.

Posted by: alan aronson on February 11, 2006 at 3:45 PM | PERMALINK

The computer as printer, then scan locked up printed ballots solution seems most obvious. True, Microsoft probably sees open source voting machine software as the foot in the door that will doom their software sales in governments, but how anyone could rationally oppose open source voting software (if we have to have electronic voting) is beyond me.... The mere fact that somebody could defend proprietary data formats for internal storage of election results indicates how far from a democracy we really are... And of courcse, recent news is that Diebold is trying to dump it's election machine division.... I still can't believe they did it in WindowsCE and expected it to be trouble-free...

Posted by: vax on February 11, 2006 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK

tbrosz: This has all the advantages of the speed of e-voting

At least you're honest and open about favoring voter supression.

Why not go with a higher speed system like optical scan? Everyone knows you'd have to be an idiot to fill out a ballot that an honest elections official couldn't interpret.

Posted by: ranaaurora on February 11, 2006 at 5:35 PM | PERMALINK

Why not go with a higher speed system like optical scan? Everyone knows you'd have to be an idiot to fill out a ballot that an honest elections official couldn't interpret.

Normally, I'd agree, but we're now in an area where election losers routinely attack the process, and we seem to have a limitless supply of "idiots" who can't figure out something third-graders can easily do, so we have to go with as little direct human marking on ballots as possible.

Even optically-scanned ballots where you fill in the squares with a pencil or something, have many badly-marked ballots that are routinely discarded.

If the optically-scannable card is actually precision-printed as the output of an electronic system, we don't have that problem any more.

There is still an essential human interface, though--the voter has to inspect the printout ballot card before it's put into a box. Only this way can we be sure there aren't any untracable electronic shenanigans. Someone who could cook a machine to give the wrong totals could cook it to print the wrong ballots.

If a voter looks like he's going to drop his printout into the backup ballot box without looking at it, the poll officials should gently remind them.

Needless to say, the printout ballot would not simply be a matrix of black dots. It would have the choices clearly marked in text (maybe in blue non-scannable ink) with the marks themselves, next to the text for clarity, being in scannable black ink.

The layout would have to be clear enough so that the black mark that the machine printed on it would be clearly associated with the proper name.

What we're trying to eliminate is human marking error.

Ideally, write-ins would be typed somehow, but this is a whole different problem.

Posted by: tbrosz on February 11, 2006 at 6:39 PM | PERMALINK

Just noticed--where do you get "voter suppression" from anything I've said?

Posted by: tbrosz on February 11, 2006 at 6:41 PM | PERMALINK

That was a snark gone flat. "e-voting" may be pretty fast for the individual voting, but the cost per machine limits the number of machines per precinct. This led to several hour long lines in some precincts in 2004 -- typically precincts around universities where the number of voters is not easily predicted. This in turn leads to excitable partisans second guessing local election officials and screaming about intentional voter supression. You can have the same problem with antique mechanical machines if you don't have enough of them.

Voting systems that allow people to vote with pen and paper on school cafeteria tables are faster, cheaper, and more flexible to unexpected turnout. If you think people might be idiots have them fill in a practice circle or a practice mark when they sign in.

Posted by: ranaaurora on February 11, 2006 at 8:04 PM | PERMALINK

BTW, in precincts where I have voted, obviously spoiled ballots (over votes, stray lines, etc.) are rejected by the optical scan reader before you leave the precinct. You get to try again.

Posted by: ranaaurora on February 11, 2006 at 8:14 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin Drum >"...She explained why legislation to require open source software for voting machines is likely to fail (Microsoft doesn't like it) and why simple, reliable technologies like SAT-style optical mark ballots are a nonstarter these days..."


she is such a loser on this

the fact that MSoft dislikes it should be a very positive recommendation if she had a CLUE (I worked at the Redmond SoftSausage Factory in software development through most of the 90`s so I KNOW that of which I speak; applications, operating systems & cryptography were the areas)

The non-optical rant is pure Bull

I wonder where she has her retirement fund money...

vax >"...I still can't believe they did it in WindowsCE and expected it to be trouble-free..."

Ignorance knows no bounds

Clearly several folks in this thread would be a better choice than she would since they have a CLUE

"Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it." - Mark Twain

Posted by: daCascadian on February 11, 2006 at 10:31 PM | PERMALINK

And for those going on about "dimples", "hanging chads" & overvotes

read this about Florida in 2000

It wasn`t what you think...

"After spending 36 days in the fall of 2000 in thrall to politicians, pundits and the press, Americans probably thought they knew all about the hanging, dangling and pregnant chads that helped decide the presidential election.

Turns out, those chads only distracted attention from much more grievous breakdowns during the 2000 election.

At least thats what longtime Florida political observer Lance deHaven-Smith believes. His most recent book, The Battle for Florida (University Press of Florida, 2005), looks at the twilight of democracy in Ancient Greece and draws disturbing parallels with the institutions in Florida and the nation during the 2000 election and up until today..."

"Our ignorance is not so vast as our failure to use what we know." - M. King Hubbert

Posted by: daCascadian on February 11, 2006 at 10:36 PM | PERMALINK

In San Francisco, we fill in a broken arrow with black ink. It's like standardized tests from high school except the area to fill in is a rectangle and not an oval.

And it works very well. If the polling place is crowded, just take sit down anywhere and mark your ballot. No waiting. And if there's a need for a recount, your original ballot can be inspected and your intent can be judged by real people.

And if your ballot is messed up, for example, by voting for too many candididates for the same office, the box spits it back at you and you get to try again.

In my opinion, this is the best way.

Posted by: Joel Rubinstein on February 12, 2006 at 2:28 AM | PERMALINK

Cascadian: I'm afraid you've misunderstood badly. Bowen herself is a big supporter of open source. She was just explaining why it was unlikely to get enough support to pass.

As for the "non-optical rant," again, she was just explaining reality to us. Bowen herself doesn't have a problem with optical systems. But HAVA doesn't allow them, which means you either use an e-voting system or else you use optical for most people and a second system for the disabled. Most county registrars just don't want to do that.

Whatever else you think, I can assure you that Bowen has a clue. She's far more savvy about the technical and systemic issues involved than just about any other politician out there.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on February 12, 2006 at 2:58 AM | PERMALINK

So, Kevin, it sounds like you had a real nice listening to Debra Bowen explain why, unfortunately, nothing can be done -- because Microsoft doesn't like it, county registrars are lazy shitbags, etc. How very pleasant!

Posted by: SqueakyRat on February 12, 2006 at 6:52 AM | PERMALINK

Here's a data point/anecdotal evidence:

My wife's hands have been wrecked by over thirty years of degenerative rheumatoid arthritis. So I've been helping her fill out her voting ballots for years. Never a problem with any election worker.

Now the 2002 election, where I got to the voting site and found I was listed as having already voted... THAT was a problem.

Posted by: Bruce A. on February 12, 2006 at 12:07 PM | PERMALINK

Since more and more states are going to vote-by-mail, they have to have a system (usually optical scan) separate from the electronic voting anyway to handle that. That means if they want to simply things by getting rid of a redundant system it'll have to be the electronic one that goes.

Of course, I predict it won't be long before we have a vote-by-mail scandal. The movement toward it is really an abandonment of the idea of the secret ballot, and it makes voter coercion and bribery easy and reliable.

Posted by: KCinDC on February 12, 2006 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

As Kevin clarifies, "Bowen herself is a big supporter of open source. She was just explaining why it was unlikely to get enough support to pass."

To clarify further, getting to open source may take two steps. The first step would be a move to "disclosed source", in which vendors would retain intellectual property rights.

Diebold's exit from the e-voting business is going to leave a lot of sadder but wiser election administrators with an increased appetite for solutions that don't make them captives of specific vendors.

Posted by: Ham Richards on February 12, 2006 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

Squeaky Rat: there are plenty of improvements we are making right now. Better audits of e-voting machines, for example, using the paper audit trail (a bill I got passed in CA last year).

Ham Richards: Yes, you nailed it. The first thing is for people to understand what open source software is, and what the advantages are -- especially for voting, where transparency is critical because there is no counterparty to check accuracy (as there is with an ATM, for example).

California, like many governments, has plenty of legacy software that's hard to work with because the documentation is weak or non-existent, and the number of people who can work with a specific type of old, non-proprietary code is limited. Your point about being captive of a specific vendor is underappreciated -- for now!

Liano: I've carried legislation to make IRV available in any CA city or county.

Inkblot: No cats were harmed in the creation of this post.

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The truth is revealed INKBLOT really works for the NSA!!

Posted by: james phillips on February 13, 2006 at 6:55 AM | PERMALINK

I read a fair amount of the posts on this thread, though not all, so hope I'm not repeating - but with all the talk about paper trails with e-voting, and so many people from CA commenting, I'm surprised no one has mentioned the only electronic voting machine company in America that already HAS a paper trail - Accupoll Holdings, based in Tustin CA. They have been apparently crowded out of the market by ESS and Diebold, their stock has gone from a high of $3.85 a share to a current price of $.0064 (that's 64/100ths of ONE CENT), and they are selling to unions and individual counties across the country, though not very much. Perhaps some of you folks know of this company? And more to the point, why this company which makes the very product everyone seems to say we need is floundering?

I'd appreciate replies either here or direct to my email address.

Rich - radicalleftie@aol.com

Posted by: Rich Miles on February 13, 2006 at 4:36 PM | PERMALINK



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