How voting machines can be faulty

The government is passing over a precious civil liberty to private companies

Voting is an American tradition valued by every citizen regardless of political affiliation, class or race. As technology becomes more advanced and populations grow larger, the need for automated voting systems is logical. However, the design, construction, implementation, effectiveness and security of electronic voting systems has proven to be problematic.

Electronic voting machines flooded into our elections after the Help Americans Vote Act was signed into law by George W Bush in 2002. While there’s potential to make voting more accessible, the reality is that these machines are often untrustworthy and their manufacturers don’t value transparency.

Instead, they insert language from the DMCA and UCITA into contracts with states and counties. So when New Jersey election officials sent electronic voting machines to a Computer Science professor from Princeton, the company threatened him with legal recourse. This makes public oversight and analysis of these products extremely difficult.

Election Systems and Software absorbed Diebold Inc in 2009. Their monopoly was slightly damaged by a 2010 FBI civil anti-trust lawsuit but ES&S rebounded. As of 2014 they claim to hold 60 percent of the electronic voting market with customers in 42 states.

In 2007 Debra Bowen, the Secretary of State for California, authorized a comprehensive review of multiple machines. Upon completion, Bowen issued a press release:

“As the state’s chief election officer, I take my responsibilities very seriously. In many ways, I think voters and counties are the victims of a federal certification process that hasn’t done an adequate job of ensuring that the systems made available to them are secure, accurate, reliable and accessible. Congress enacted the Help America Vote Act, which pushed many counties into buying electronic systems that – as we’ve seen for some time and we saw again in the independent UC review – were not properly reviewed or tested to ensure that they protected the integrity of the vote. That’s what my decisions are about – protecting the integrity of the vote.”

Saving your browsing history is one thing, but giving companies the authority to design and program our voting machines is a more significant sacrifice. It appears that government is abdicating a precious civil liberty to private companies. This authority has been largely placed in the hands of a single secretive company.

Anual Lobbying for ES&S. Data from Opensecrets

College students hacked into these systems in 2010. Due to secrecy and unwillingness to consult with experts from the public, it’s unsurprising that the integrity of these machines hasn’t improved in the decade since Bowen’s investigation. Several organizations remain critical of these systems, including: Black Box Voting, Open Voting Consortium and the Election Defense Alliance. Without direct access to voting machines, proving that they are fraudulent or unreliable becomes more complicated.

Citizens must analyze the returns filed by precincts, using statistics to highlight anomalies. Beth Clarkson, an engineer with a PhD in statistics, filed a lawsuit against the Secretary of State of Kansas. Utilizing similar mathematical tools, Beth illustrated anomalies in voter returns. I spoke with her to understand the process.

Essentially, you count the percent of votes cast in each precinct for a particular party. Including additional precincts, you’d statistically expect this ratio to stabilize after many counties and votes are included. What Beth found (studying results of the 2014 Kansas Senate election, 2012 Ohio Presidential election, and the 2014 Wisconsin Gubernatorial race) in all three of these elections there were deviations in these ratios (the percentage of people who voted Republican) emerged as the number of precincts included became quite large.

She explains: “It indicates an accelerating increase in the percent of Republican votes as the size of the precinct increases.”

To simplify, imagine you flip a coin 10 times, and record every flip. Then you flip the coin 100 times and record the result of each flip. You do this for 1000 flips, 10,000 flips, and even a million flips. Looking at each trial you ask: what percent of the time did the coin face heads up? What you expect is that perhaps after 10 flips you don’t see 50 percent. It would be anomalous to not see a number close to 50 percent after 1000 flips, 10k flips, etc.

What Beth found that as more votes were counted, the percentage recorded for Republicans (in this case) began to increase rather than flatten out. That’s like saying that after 1000 flips the coin landed 50 percentage heads up, after 10k flips the coin landed 55 percentage up, after 100k flips the coin lands 58 percentage up, etc. This doesn’t prove fraud, but it is highly unlikely and either indicates the machines in question are faulty or they are rigged. The way votes are reported makes finding tampering extremely difficult. According to Beth: “The way the paper trails on the machine ballots are generated, they are either completely useless (generated after all votes are cast) or difficult to properly audit under the best of circumstances.” Who is to blame for this?

I spoke with officials at the Elections Assistance Commission only to have the same sad truth validated: citizens elect state officials who run the elections to elect more officials. Oversight of state elections are run by more politically elected officials (Secretary of State in most cases, and the SoS from California, New Jersey and New York refused to comment on the topic as well). This looks like a house of cards resting upon black boxes with keys being held by technology companies.

We collectively empower political parties by casting votes, and politically elected officials are the people choosing to use the same machines for elections. Politics is beginning to resemble a circus. Voting is like a slow ferris wheel, that only comes around every few years, and we’re all guaranteed a chance to hop in.

We elect the carny who turns this giant wheel. The carny is our employee: never forget that. We are the owners of this political circus, and our voting power is our kill switch. The clowns have run amok, the carnies hold all the keys, and at this point pulling the plug may be nearly impossible.

Forget partisanship, or any other illusions that divide us. A threat to the voting process is a threat to democracy.