(Mis)Uses of Technology

by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
california, e-voting


What's More Important: Accurate Elections Or Fast Results?

from the accuracy-is-overrated dept

As the debate continues over e-voting machines, we're seeing some more misplaced whining over attempts to make elections more fair and accurate. In San Francisco, election officials are complaining about the rules set by California's secretary of state, which will mean that this year's mayoral election ballots will need to be checked and counted by hand. Effectively, that means that results for the election won't be known for a few weeks -- rather than instantly. This leads to all sorts of whining and complaining from election officials about how unfair this is -- but since when should speedy results be more important than accurate vote counts? And, the problem is not the secretary of state at all (as the election officials imply). It's because of two separate e-voting firms who refused to take the necessary steps to make sure their machines could be properly reviewed.

First, there's Election Systems and Software (ES&S) makers of buggy e-voting machines (that they admitted in internal memos) that have been known to lose votes or count them in triplicate depending on the election. San Francisco currently uses ES&S machines to count ballots, but those machines don't work very well -- especially if the voter isn't using exactly the right type of pen or pencil. When the secretary of state demanded that ES&S allow outside security experts to examine their machines and software, the company refused to allow it, and then finally gave in, well past the deadline, and included an angry petulent letter threatening the secretary of state. This, despite the fact that the company was caught providing uncertified equipment for the last election. With all that baggage, is it any wonder that the secretary of state would ask for a more thorough method of counting the votes?

The second e-voting firm, Sequoia, was chosen by San Francisco as a replacement vendor to get rid of the questionable ES&S machines. Of course, Sequoia has its own share of problems. Last year it was revealed that there was a button on the machines that would put the machine into "manual" mode and let you vote multiple times. Sequoia claimed this button was a feature. Reasonably, San Francisco's board of supervisors requested that Sequoia hand over their software to be reviewed -- a request which Sequoia refused. Thus, the board rejected the contract... leaving everyone in the situation they're in today. So, while elections officials may complain about the rules for counting votes, it's not the secretary of state they should blame, but the e-voting companies who continue to stonewall when it comes to actually making sure their machines are secure and accurate. And, in the meantime, can someone explain to elections officials that their job is to conduct fair and accurate elections, rather than elections with quick results?

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Franssu, Sep 20th, 2007 @ 3:57pm

    Weeks for a manual count ?

    What kind of country is that ? Aren't there any volunteers to count the vote manually in the evening ?

    In France, vote are always manual, and the results are always obtained (if there's no irregularity) during the night. Accurate, fast. Of course it relies on the goodwill of citizen. But isn't that the very definition of citizen to take interest in the conduct of your democracy ?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 20th, 2007 @ 4:46pm


    Isn't it a balance?

    I mean, aren't elections done a long time (months) before anyone will take office for exactly this reason?

    So what's the problem?

    This "instant gratification" attitude needs to chill.

    To give an analogy, I'd rather my bypass surgery was done accurately, but not so slowly that I die on the table.

    (SF resident; voted for Matt. But was willing to give Newsome a chance until he boinked a woman married to someone else. Uncool in the extreme. SF politics blows but it's still one of the best cities to live in.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    matt, Sep 20th, 2007 @ 4:53pm

    answer = both
    giving to just one or the other is a false concession that is not neccessary. Things could be timely if our politicians weren't douches and enacted things to increase accuracy and speed

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Haywood, Sep 20th, 2007 @ 4:55pm

    Suggested Viewing; Man of the Year - Robin William

    On the plus side, all the greedy political bastards are the same, so if a machine elects the wrong one, what possible difference could it make. There are no Democrats and Republicans, just winners and losers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    VF, Sep 20th, 2007 @ 6:54pm


    Here in Canada we use paper ballots and know the results the night of the election.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Vincent Clement (profile), Sep 20th, 2007 @ 7:59pm

    Re: Weeks for a manual count ?

    You have to keep mind that in the US, you could be voting for any number of political positions during one election. You could be voting for the President, Senator, Congressperson, Governor, Sheriff, even the local dog catcher.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Overcast, Sep 20th, 2007 @ 8:26pm

    Accuracy - should there even be a question about this?

    Although, in all honesty - I think the vote's pretty much a compromised farce anymore.

    On the plus side, all the greedy political bastards are the same, so if a machine elects the wrong one, what possible difference could it make. There are no Democrats and Republicans, just winners and losers.

    hehe, I agree 100%

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    zcat, Sep 20th, 2007 @ 8:29pm

    How about fast and accurate?

    If a state buys equal numbers of compatible (Printing and reading the paper-trail result according to a defined open voting standard) machines from three different vendors, each fitted with a printer and optical scanner, they would be able to swap the paper records between machines and count every single vote two or three times on two or three entirely different machines, getting an absolutely accurate and trustworthy result perhaps half an hour after the election closing. All under the watchful eye of volunteeds from multiple parties. And no extra cost, just buy one-third of the machines your state requires from three different vendors.

    Or is half an hours too long to wait?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    zenmatt, Sep 21st, 2007 @ 7:17am

    Doesn't matter.

    Fast, accurate, whatever. Either way the guy I vote for is never elected. With my political beliefs, voting in my area is an exercise in futility.

    The mere fact that I'd prefer accuracy means that 20 other people in my area would prefer fast. I mean just look at our news.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Mike Mixer, Sep 21st, 2007 @ 8:09am

    Vote by mail

    Here in Oregon they send you your ballot and you mail it back. Up till now I thought it was pretty neat until I started wondering how they were counted. The good news is if the counter is wrong there are manual counts, but still I have to wonder. In 1996 I lived in a town with a contentious race for county commissioner. One rabble rouser made it his duty to stake out the court house election night so he could catch any hanky panky. As it turns out the room holding the uncounted ballots was opened and cleaned that very night. When the lights went on the police were called by said rabble rouser and much fuss ensued. The punchline is that the cleaning crew worked from 4 am to noon and this office suddenly needed cleaning at midnight. It was never in the paper or reported anywhere else. I knew about it because my phone was used to call the cops

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Thornton, Sep 21st, 2007 @ 8:56am

    Re: Weeks!?

    We should do this in the US, too, but we have a fascination with technology, thinking that it will always make things better.

    Merrill's Law: There are no technological solutions to social problems.

    -- Douglas Merrill, Technology Director, Google

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Max, Sep 21st, 2007 @ 10:45am

    Accuracy in elections is and should be the sole priority of the election system, if it is not then there is no sense in having an election.

    Speed is only important to those who think self gratification is the purpose of life, like politicians. In reality, there is no requirement for speed of outcome in elections. When it comes to the Presidential election, if there is a tie, it goes to the House of Representatives for resolution which literally could take weeks (and it has in the past).

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Neverhood, Sep 22nd, 2007 @ 8:36am

    How hard can it be?

    When you think about it, how on earth can it be so hard to make a vote counting machine that works?

    It's not like it can be the most advanced piece of software in them, and hardly much more advanced than a webpage "click counter".

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads


Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.