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Tuesday, November 06, 2012

How we can be more secure with mail-in ballots than touch screens

Yes, it's election day! I didn't wait in line ... I live in Oregon, where balloting is done by mail. That's a much better system.

Of course, people are suspicious of voting electronically, or by mail. Somehow the mechanical interaction reassures people. However, security has been an issue for the entire history of voting. Ballots can be "misplaced", or electronically stored values from modern voting machines can be invisibly tampered with, after the fact. Certainly, as it is election day, we're hearing stories about devices that make it hard to select specific candidates ... and the conspiracy theorists are certain that the fix is in.

It may be, but the cases I've heard of are simply bad touch screens. I wonder what the conspiracy theorists believe is going on when they attempt to withdraw $25 from an ATM and get $10 instead?

Real attempts to fix the elections don't change what you enter; they change what is stored ... possibly long after you have left the voting booth.

I would say that having fewer centralized counting locations would be more secure. First of all, we could use (as we do in Oregon), optical scanners ... the same, basic, trusted technology that's used for the SATs.

Next, the process of opening the secure envelopes and feeding them to the scanners could be more easily monitored if it occurred in a few locations across each state, rather than in every polling location across the entire country. This process is subject to fraud, yes, but is probably more likely to be affected by simple incompetence.

With physical ballots, it is also possible to do a proper recount. Voting on a touch screen is too ephemeral for a recount to have any meaning.

Ultimately, there is no way to ensure that your vote is actually counted. However, I think we can come up with a way in which we can at least ensure that your ballot made it to the processing center.

Imagine if the ballot mailed to your home had a unique bar code on it, as well as a "tear off" tab with the corresponding unique number. In addition, there is a section on the ballot where you could enter a four or six digit PIN code of your own choice.

Later, at home, you visit a web site: you provide your unique, randomly assigned ballot id as well as your own secret, personally-selected, PIN code. The government web site (built using open-source software, of course) could then identify the status of your vote, just like UPS can tell you where your package is.

Since PIN codes are ultimately guessable, I don't think I'd want the system to do more than confirm the processing of the ballot. However, to someone like me, it would go a lot further towards assuring me that, yes, my vote was counted than anything I've used in the past ... and certainly it would be far more reassuring than the buggy, mis-calibrated, poorly designed touch screen devices in use today.

Further, I like the idea of the vote taking shape over the course of a few days, or even a week. Vote by mail from a week before "election day". Maybe the ballots accumulate but are not counted until the end of the election itself ... again, something that the ballot status check outlined above would help to ensure.

The big weakness of this is privacy concern over linking your identity to a specific ballot. Who would be able to view your vote at a later date? The answer to that should be: nobody; that is not only a sacred tradition, but the fact that your private vote can never be retrieved and used against you in any way at a later date is important to keep voting free and uncoerced.

So imagine if your ballot arrived with four or five unique id stickers, each five or ten digits long: you chose, say, three of them, in whatever order you like and place them on the ballot. Nothing else on the ballot could link that specific ballot to you ... but that now partially-random ballot id can still be tracked to the central counting location. Only you would have a link between your identity and the ballot. I leave it to someone smarter than me to determine just how many "stickers" are needed to ensure reasonably anonymity (and prevent any potential ballot id conflicts) but I think the basic concept is valid.