But even at that, when a state has a razor-thin margin in an election, it can be maddening to figure out what happened.
The election to the United States Senate from Minnesota in 2008 was too close to call before the election, and even after millions of Minnesotans voted for one of three major party candidates, the margin between the top two candidates, Democrat Al Franken and Republican Norm Coleman, was so close that the margin was only one-hundredth of 1 percent of the votes cast in the election. That election really underscored the slogan "every vote counts."
It's quite indefensible to use a voting system that doesn't leave a literal paper trail. The technology is well proven. But what really gives most election results legitimacy and staying power is a wide enough margin among votes cast by people who show up to vote that the old saying "Vox populi, vox Dei" can apply to the result. The people speak, and even the voters who didn't agree with the plurality have to listen. It's appalling that any state would have a voting system that could obscure what the consensus of the voters is.
AFTER EDIT: Thanks for the several replies to this comment. Reading other replies posted to this thread since I first wrote this comment, I see several mentions of the systems in the Pacific Northwest states of having mail ballots mailed to voters. When I lived in Taiwan, more than a decade ago, I had a post office box there. Sometimes I would receive postal mail from the United States for the previous holders of that post office box, including State of Oregon ballots for two different Oregon voters (who were presumably each other's roommates while living in Taiwan). I always wondered, without giving into the temptation, whether I could have successfully filled out one (or both?) of those ballots and mailed them back from Taiwan to cast votes in an Oregon election. By contrast, I was never able to cast a Minnesota absentee ballot from Taiwan, even the time when I should have been regarded as having a stable permanent residence address here in the United States. So I missed out on voting in both the 1984 election and the ever-so-controversial election of 2000. I have no clear awareness of how mail ballots are authenticated as having been mailed by the voter to whom they belong (a signature on the envelope?) and hope that someone is checking to prevent those ballots from being misused.
Computer systems are trying to bring forward all the hidden problems that aren't found until we have to fight about the result and put them right in front of the user. By design, they are going to show more errors, instead of hiding them from the voter.
(I shouldn't need to say this, but I'm not saying computer voting systems are better. I tend to prefer pure paper. But each system has trade-offs.)
Paper ballots as the canonical record can always be: a) recounted on demand while being able to verify original voter intent (to a greater extent than digital or mechanical systems) and b) digitized for redundant storage and securely encrypted.
Therefore, IMHO, if you want to ensure democracy, ballots must: show tampering, be easy to complete, easy to count (and re-count) and quickly deployable/scalable. Scannable paper is the only option that really does all of that well.
From an operations perspective (MBA/Designer here), the bottleneck in the process is the filling out of the ballot, not the scanning/recording (with any electronic/scanning system), so why not make that part scale/parallelize really easily without requiring thousands of dollars of heavy, breakable hardware? Paper is better, all around.
Lots of people really don't like the fact that the senator is chosen based on how 3 people sit down and decide what that means, or whether this chad was punched out "enough."
Computer touch-screen voting systems, like all other voting, have flaws, but one thing they don't have is any ambiguity how you count each ballot.
(There are, of course, other ways to handle this. For example, you could fill out a paper ballot and have it read by a test machine that is very conservative in what it accepts, and alerts you to errors. I'm sure this has trade-offs, too.)
As someone who has designed questionnaires and computer interfaces, I think you miss a huge point here – electronic systems make vote counting easy because they constrain choice... but there's a lot less ability to verify that an electronic system actually captured the intention of the voter – just as this story shows.
So, how do you do that? 3 parts:
1) Use paper ballots, as I've argued for, above.
2) Count/scan each ballot immediately, before the voter leaves. Reject ones that do not process properly (i.e. the one you described above would be rejected if there were conflicting indicators). I thought I remembered MN doing that (I lived/voted there ~a decade ago), for example, and I'm pretty sure my poling place here in Illinois did that last time as well (haven't been there yet today). It's not an impossible task to enforce the same constraints on a paper ballot, doing so with the voter present and able to clarify/fix their ballot.
3)You try really, really hard to design easy to understand and use paper ballots (for all the reasons I said above, you need paper for an audit trail). Good communication design (i.e.: how you design/layout the ballot forms) matters a lot and most of them are terrible.
That, however, is no excuse for accepting an electronic system which gives up any ability to audit the count in a reliable way (and, unless the voter verifies a physical printout, no electronic system can be reliable, as discussed above).
Paper ballots are really the best solution we have at present and I'd argue the involvement of as many people as possible in counting and supervision is a good thing. With clear evidence like this video of probable fraud and at the very least incompetetence the current touch screen voting machines should be removed at least until they are properly vetted and verified.
Very rarely is there disagreement about what is a valid vote - but they can be very ambiguous. The paper is only approved if there is a high level of unambiguity about it - any doubt it goes out.
I was under the impression that (in the UK) all ballot papers containing anything other than "X" in one box were always rejected for that reason.
Then, in the presence of all the other candidates and agents, I would have go through my list and check off my secret codes.
Guess what? It would kick off big style and suddenly consent to include my magic ballots would be withdrawn by everybody else - the Returning Officer would make a decision and probably have a word with the polis - who are present at, and supervise the ballot boxes.
Protecting the integrity of the ballot is like securing a computer system. Identify the core vectors of attack and lock them down. So it is about "what is the rate of postal votes?" "are the postal vote samples inline with the end-result?" "what is the turnout? relative to last time and other similar constituencies?" "what is the churn in voter registration?" "is the final turnout consistent with the reported turnout?" "is it easy to buy votes?" "is it easy to register fake voters?".
The core point is not to make fraud hard but to make it visible. Of course the basic 'don't make it easy' steps need to be taken - but after that it is all about 'don't let anybody get away with it'.
The problem on HN is that nobody coming up with suggestions on how to improve the ballot is doing any 'customer discovery' - going out to talk to actual people who stand for election and run elections and who are trying to ensure that the vote is fair. The computer pixie dust being scattered around is fixing non-problems.
BTW it isn't an X it is a St Andrew's cross - St Andrew being the patron saint of truth telling - it means 'I swear by St Andrew that this is my true intent'. The 'kiss' on a letter likewise meaning 'I swear by St Andrew that my love is true'. One of the perks of being Scottish is that our flag stands for truth, love and democracy :)
I'm not trying to play Loki's Wager -- there really have been incredibly close elections where you have puzzle out just what the voter intended and it's just not clear. Nor can you make the boundary be "well if it's not clear throw it away," because you can't tell when it doesn't become clear. This isn't the most worst thing ever, but it's part of a legitimate design to want to limit this.
Computer-voting systems do have problems, but they don't have that one. And it at least gives the voter a chance to fix it if they are paying attention.
(Yes, I'm a fan of paper, but it's not strictly better than computer voting.)
Your picture of a someone inspecting a punch-card is not relevant to most paper voting systems - punch cards are like touch screen machines, they are unreliable technology, and should not have been introduced when the previous system worked perfectly well but just required manpower for counting (which can be mostly volunteers). Even the counting could be automated on paper ballots, but you need humans involved for the ambiguous cases, and I'm not sure automated counting is necessary if you have enough volunteers.
Simple paper ballots with a mark inside a square or circle are a tested solution which works well, and leaves an indisputable paper trail in case of recounts. Anything else we've tried just doesn't work as well, though no doubt it has made some companies fabulously rich in suppling the necessary machinery and constantly updating it when it proves to be unreliable.
So I'd contend that paper ballots, as used in the UK for example, are better than the computer voting machines available at present. I'm sure one day we'll come up with better machines, but they'd have to be open source, secure, verifiable and incredibly reliable - the antithesis of the machine in the video.
Count it before the voter leaves, reject any ambiguous ballots with feedback about what's wrong and have the voter fix it before they leave. Repeat until it's accepted.
This is the way it worked when I lived in Indiana. We had paper/optical ballots that were scanned immediately after we turned them in. We watched them get scanned, and could verify that the counter on the scanner incremented (not vote tallies, just a +1 for total ballots cast).
The suggestion is that, when the machine is scanning the ballot, if it finds something ambiguous it immediately rejects the ballot, returns it, and doesn't count anything, the voter gets it back, fixes the issue (or returns the ballot as spoiled and gets a fresh one they can mark correctly), and you repeat.
Nowhere in that does anyone else see the person's votes (except potentially on returning a spoiled ballot, but that's no more true under this system than the existing one if someone notices they mis-marked something, and they can always just mark more to obscure their original intent before handing it back).
The downside of all this is that the machine is still free to slant results if its software has been tampered with.
How close elections are is orthogonal to this issue.
(2) Electronic voting machines are stupid.
(3) Chads are stupid.
The immediate solution to (2) and (3) is to use a pen and paper.
Spoiled ballot. Vote not counted. What else would it mean?
Even if there is no checkbox next to the write-in spot you could reasonably argue that it still shouldn't matter what's written there unless none of the candidates have checks.
Instead of going to all the expense of flipping a coin, though, you could just take the person who seemed to get the most votes (after you've counted them all really hard to make sure you're within the margin of error). Just an arbitrary rule, no biggie.
Or have a runoff election, or have instant-runoff voting. Having elections determined by real or statistical coin-flips undermines the (important) story of self-rule.
The candidates agree, and the winner and loser both accept the outcome, works for me.
Your link to a place where they used a coin flip isn't disagreeing with him (nor really the grandparent, who wasn't claiming that you can't use a coinflip, but rather that you shouldn't use a coinflip).
"The greatest value of free elections is in all of the out-of-equilibrium outcomes that, because of the regularity of free elections, never come close to happening."
That's a very positive way to look at it. The problem of reduced legitimacy persists, though. The disgruntled Coleman supporters will probably always have a sneaking suspicion that the election was stolen from them, which tends to poison actual discourse.
Are you expecting the vote to be a proxy for the entire population of the country/state/whatever? Perhaps the entire population of eligible voters? Or, do you view it as simply the preference of those who took the time to vote?
Personally, I see little harm in disregarding the intentions of those who could vote but choose to not vote.
Issues of systemic inequalities in access to voting aside, I have little problem with viewing an election the task of accurately counting the votes of those who actually made it to the poling place. If you accept that concept, then the margin of error is extremely low – especially with electronic voting systems.
In reality, you should apply a finite population correction, which would make the "margin of error" a bit smaller if you get a substantial percentage of the population voting:
And to partly answer your question: Oregon makes it a felony to sign someone else's name to the identifying envelope.
I think you'll be less enthusiastic once you understand how it works.
In my jurisdiction, ballots are stuffed into an image scanner (like a high speed fax) as they arrive, the votes are detected, any ambiguous votes are "electronically adjudicated" meaning workers alter the database to correct for voter intent or write ins. There's a nightly summary report, allowing people to peek at early results.
Add the problems with USPS losing 1% of all first class mail, and the lower end demographics being more mobile (changes of address), you get some real disenfranchisement issues.
It's true that vote by mail increases turnout, mostly with primary and special elections.
It's also true that vote by mail silently disenfranchises about the same number of people it enfranchises.
The correct solution is postal ballots for people who need them, poll sites for every one else. Thereby maximizing the number of people enfranchised and minimizing the number disenfranchised.
 In addition, we have locked dropboxes in many locations so you can avoid the USPS and the elections office entirely.
That's a numerical statement. Can you provide the numbers behind it? How much is turnout increased, and where did you get the 1% figure for the USPS losing first class mail from? I would assume that mail going to central locations are more likely to be delivered than to individuals. Same with issues related to change of address.
I filed FOIA requests with USPS, which they ignored. The metrics are done by a private third party, claiming the data is propriety (privatization allows govt to hide uncomfortable truths).
I got the numbers client lawsuit against USPS. Bulk mailers do their own metrics / tracking (using test mailings). They claimed USPS's "UAA rate" (undeliverable as addressed) was higher than claimed, so they shouldn't be charged as much.
Counties have the option to allow it, but most don't, so most individuals don't have this option.
Not that they seem to mind, though - I haven't heard of any complaints, anecdotally.
Is this different than how the count works in states whose ballots are delivered via volunteers with ballot boxes?
Most central counts have been using optical mark sense scanners, which are those multiple choice test reader thingies. Douglas Jones has posted online an excellent survey and explanation of various election equipment used. http://homepage.cs.uiowa.edu/~jones/voting/
My jurisdiction is very liberal about trying to count every vote marked, per voter intent. I understand that other jurisdictions will reject whole ballots if there's any problems scanning it.
With mark sense equipment, if I ballot doesn't read correctly, it's corrected. Ballots can be unreadable for all sorts of reasons, water damage, unfortunate paper fold, ballot printed askew, etc.
Full image scanner are newer. Votes are inferred using image processing (recognition), vs diodes firing off.
"Electronic adjudication" breaks the paper trail. To correct for voter intent, they're changing records in a database. Versus modifying / correcting ballots or ballot duplication (copying votes to a ballot which will then scan correctly).
covered by the Washington Post
Virginia has both right now and a lot of people prefer to wait for the machine. I would love for them to switch completely to the paper marked ballots.
Las Vegas slot machines seem like a perfect archetype (to me, anyway). In trying to look up the security measures I remember from an episode of Modern Marvels I instead ended up with an NY Times opinion piece from 2004  drawing the same conclusion as I. Probably (based on admittedly nothing) the measures cited have become more sophisticated and rigorous
in the past 8 years.
Here are some highlights on slot machine security (as of June 2004):
* All machine software past and present are kept on file by the state
* Spot checks, spot checks, spot checks. Random and often.
* State gaming commissions are constantly looking for new ways to manipulate their machines; the article mentions firing a stun gun at a slot machine (best job ever?)
* Six month vetting process for companies and employees wanting produce gambling hardware/software
* User disputing the machine's actions has the right to an immediate investigation
Note: I am absolutely in favor of maintaining a paper trail for decades regardless of the state of digital solutions.
If you don't vote for the Lizard People, the wrong Lizard Person might get in.