: New: Book Report: Broken Ballots

A few people want to steal elections. A few billion people want fair elections. How do you make an election un-stealable? It's not easy. Elections do't run themselves; we need election officials. Folks who want to steal elections are highly-motivated to become election officials. You need a way to hold an election in which some of the folks running it are dishonest. Mostly, this boils down to letting folks watch each other. Thus, political parties bring in observers to watch polling places.

But what if someone tampers with a voting machine before the election? If your observers only come in on election day, maybe you don't have watchers on the right day. It would be nice to think that voting machines are stored in secure facilities before the election; it would be nice to think that.

What if someone tampers with the count after the election? What if precinct officials wait until the observers are gone to "find" a sack of votes that they "overlooked" at first? These things happen.

Broken Ballots is about engineers' attempts to help run honest elections. It's also about some engineers' attempts to help run crooked elections. It's also about some ignorant engineers who thought "What, we just need to count things? That doesn't sound so hard. I could make an election machine, easy!" and thus ended up helping run crooked elections.

New York had very crooked elections back in the day. Election officials would use ballot boxes with false bottoms; the box started out looking empty, but the false bottom concealed ballots already filled out for the guy who was, y'know, supposed to win. Remove the false bottom partway through the day and you've snuck several ballots into the election.

An engineer invented a glass ballot box. He sold them to New York. And New York used them, and those election officials couldn't sneak ballots in under false bottoms any more. But this was New York so the elections had to be corrupt in some way. To maintain this constant truth, New York was careful not to pay the engineer for the boxes they'd "bought". If they couldn't steal the election, steal the election technology.

I heard a reason to discard "mutilated" ballots that I hadn't thought of before: preserving anonymity. If a thug threatens me and forces me to vote for him, I want to be able to tell the thug that I did vote for him... but actually vote for someone else. But if the thug threatens me, tells me to vote for him, and then to write my initials on the ballot and the thug controls an election official, then he can check up on me. If there's no LH ballot voting for the thug, he knows to come kill me later. So you have to look out for large numbers of ballots with stray marks, weird write-in candidates or... or whatever.

Making voting machines is a bad business. Companies that try to sell them go out of business often. Those that survive are often pretty desperate for business. So when one community asks for a strange set-up, the voting machine makers aren't so likely to say "Hey, careful, that would allow nefarious folks to bypass security in such-and-such way." The voting machine makers are too busy being surprised that they have a customer. Engineers shouldn't trust politicians, but if they don't, maybe they don't eat.

Politicians shouldn't trust engineers, either. Engineers want to sell voting machines. Politicians ask, "Is this machine secure?" and those engineers say "Yeah, totally." Depending on what anecdote you're reading, the engineers are ignorant or dishonest. But they're always wrong. Unfortunately, some of the newer electronic machines don't even keep good records, so if someone tampers with the results, there's no way to tell. In case that wasn't bad enough, closed-source software companies don't want to let any security folks examine their source code, so even if you suspect that someone has found a way to tamper, good luck finding the security bug let alone fixing it.

Software programmers complain about the software patent system. (And we should, of course; it's a wreck.) But maybe the rest of the patent system is just as bad. This book tells the story of how a company called Avante stirred up some pretty bogus patent lawsuits for physical voting machines.

This book has so many stories. Maybe part of the reason Nixon turned to "dirty tricks" for his re-election was the mysterious voting pattern in Chicago for his first election: he lost Illinois because somehow 89% of Chicago voted in that election, almost all for Nixon's opponent. How Jim Dickson, bigwig of the American Association of People with Disabilities, claimed that only Diebold could make election machines that would let blind folks vote unassisted; specifically, Diebold machine's that didn't keep anti-tampering audit records; this at about the time that Diebold made some fishy payoffs to the AAPD. And... and... This book has a lot of great stories in it.

Where by "great," I of course mean horrid. It's kind of funny until something like 2000 Florida comes along and then it doesn't seem so funny anymore.

Tags: choice politics book capabilities programming

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