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The system here in Minnesota works much better. All ballots are paper ballots that are indelibly marked by voters. My wife and I voted this morning in our busy precinct in Minnesota, where there are some tight statewide contests about constitutional amendments and perhaps the most contested race for our state's House of Representatives of any electoral district in our state. As usual, we voted by marking bubble-shaped spaces on a paper ballot with a black pen. That provides an excellent audit trail for the voting. Machines can count such paper ballots very rapidly, and they are user-friendly for voters, and there is little ambiguity about how to vote. Minnesota has had ballots like this for at least a decade.

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.

The machine in question does produce a paper trail (at least when deployed in my state).

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.)

Computer systems can only produce a paper facsimile of the vote cast – and thus it must be checked, immediately, by the voter to verify that their intentions were recorded and reflected. Further, that paper record must itself be capable of being re-read/re-counted by different hardware easily so that the (invisible) tally of votes can be verified. In the end, you need to essentially produce a paper ballot but you burden the voter with having to check it after already having voted in a different medium. Anything short of that means that electronic votes are ripe for tampering.

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.

Read the link in tokenadult's post about Minnesota. Paper is hardly easy to count when you get to the dolts who don't know how to mark a ballot. What does it mean when the guy marks a vote for every question but also writes "LIZARD PEOPLE" in every write-in ballot spot?

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.)

>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.

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).

There's no ambiguity about a spoiled ballot. It's a legitimate protest with a clear outcome - the vote is not counted. A simple system of slips of paper marked by hand and counted by hand works better than anything involving chads, touch screens or electronic counting.

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.

I have been a candidate (in Scotland/UK). Here all rejected ballot papers are shown to all the candidates and their agents and if a paper is technically invalid (in the UK that means any mark other than a cross) but where the intent is clear (ie yes in the box against Mrs McGinty) are counted as if they were valid votes.

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.

So what is to stop you making a deal with me, that if somebody writes "ARF" in your box on the ballot paper, that you will pay me £1000? It will obviously be disputed, so it will be shown to you as a candidate, and it is unusual enough that you can identify the vote as mine with >=90% confidence, but you have a good chance that if you show it to your opponents, they will agree that my "intention was clear."

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.

Nothing, but to make that a practical vote buying scheme I would need to purchase 1,000 votes and maintain a list of the secret codes and then go to the count with this list.

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 :)

What if the bubble isn't fully filled in? What if it's 50% filled in? What if it there is a stray mark in another bubble?

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[1].

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.)

[1] http://blog.joeware.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/hangingCh...

To be clear, I was responding to your suggestion that a deliberately spoiled ballot with nonsense candidates written in would be somehow ambiguous - it's not, it will clearly be counted as spoiled (by a human counter at least). For accidentally spoiled ballots, the vote won't be counted if it is not clear - that should be decided by humans, it's more reliable than having machines do it, and frankly it probably only accounts for a very small percentage of votes; it's not a huge problem, and if it becomes statistically significant, the paper ballots can be recounted and verified later.

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.

>What if the bubble isn't fully filled in? What if it's 50% filled in? What if it there is a stray mark in another bubble?

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.

Just to be absolutely clear, you are advocating for people to have their votes approved prior to them being allowed to be cast?

No, I believe they are advocating that the ballot be counted/approved or rejected in the presence of the voter. This way people will have an opportunity to fix any mistakes with the ballot itself. This wouldn't have anything to do with the votes, rather it would ensure that the intention of the voter was correctly captured.

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).

Exactly. Tally votes with an electronic scanner in real time allowing the voter to fix any issues discovered by the electronic system. This is already done in some municipalities.

One of the core principles of the US system is that no one knows how a specific individual voted. This system (if I understand you correctly) requires the voter to confirm his vote to another human, which breaks the anonymity.

I think you misunderstand. You have a machine that scans ballots, counts votes, and then stores the ballots for later hand-verification. The ballots are fed into this machine in front of the voter. That's how it's done presently in many places (including the polling place I visited today).

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).

My polling place does this. The voter stands by as the machine scans their bubble sheet and reports success or failure on a little display.

The downside of all this is that the machine is still free to slant results if its software has been tampered with.

You can tell when it does become unclear. If the machine reading the ballot cannot provide a single valid answer per each question based on what's in the ballot, then it should be thrown away.

How close elections are is orthogonal to this issue.

Paper ballots are a must, I agree, because they can be counted by hand, but they don't have to be, at least not at first. Electronic counting/scanning of paper ballots can be trusted – it's not that difficult to verify the counting for a small (known) set of test ballots and use the machine to count the rest. If there's doubt, then hand-count... but hand-counts are fallible too – mainly because the human is the weak link, of course (we make mistakes, even when we try not to) =)

Yes that's true, machine counting would be just as good if the ballots are kept and can be verified later.

(1) A vote that cannot be understood should be considered informal and not counted.

(2) Electronic voting machines are stupid.

(3) Chads are stupid.

The immediate solution to (2) and (3) is to use a pen and paper.

>> What does it mean when the guy marks a vote for every question but also writes "LIZARD PEOPLE" in every write-in ballot spot?

Spoiled ballot. Vote not counted. What else would it mean?

If they don't check 'other' then it shouldn't matter what they put in the write-in spot. I would have accepted it as a perfectly valid ballot.

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.

Bringing up the Coleman/Franken election reminds me of my particular pet peeve. When the margin of victory is less than the margin of error, it's impossible to know the will of the people. One hundredth of one percent is not within any reasonable margin of error.

Sure, and in scenarios like that, perhaps the best thing to do is to flip a coin.

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.

perhaps the best thing to do is to flip a coin

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.

You can't get rid of edge cases by moving the edge.

Yes you can. If there is a tie in the UK the result is chosen on a cut of the cards.


The candidates agree, and the winner and loser both accept the outcome, works for me.

I'm confused by your reply. The grandparent comment was saying "You should never flip a coin", the person you replied to said (roughly) "It's impossible to avoid all situations where you can't measure the winner, you have to either flip a coin or just take the person who happened to come out ahead in the vote count".

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).

Maybe not, but you can lessen the real-world impact of edge cases by moving the edge.

And if that is too close as well?

In the end, if one candidate got 100,000 votes and the other got 100,001 then to the extent that we randomly select between the two I'm not sure that it really makes a difference which one wins. In this case the will of the people is that the two candidates are equally good.

"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."

In this case the will of the people is that the two candidates are equally good

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.

Sneaking suspicion? After the 2000 election you would be looked down on for calling Bush president in many demokratic circles.

Yeah, we aren't willing to admit it, but every voting system has a margin of error. Even 1 in a thousand voters will have problems with completely unambiguous questions.

I applaud your statistical sensibility, but I have a question – you're specifically looking for the margin of victory to be bellow the margin of error – but the margin of error of what, exactly?

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.

You're right. But for 3,000,000 votes cast, the margin of error is about 6 hundredths of one percent. At the 99% confidence level, it's .074% variance.

What are you defining as "the" margin of error?

The margin of error of a poll is the margin of error at the 95% confidence level (two sigma). The standard "margin of error" when you are talking about polls.


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:


The system in Oregon works quite well. In the mail, you get a voter's pamphlet, a ballot to fill out, and two envelopes. You put your name, address, and signature on the outer envelope, put the ballot in the unmarked inner "secrecy" envelope, and put the secrecy envelope in the identifying envelope. The people counting the ballots use the outer envelope to check identity against the list of registered voters (and the list of people who have voted already), then aggregate the secrecy envelopes for validated votes; the latter get counted separately. After election day, you can check an online service to confirm that you voted, just not how you voted.

And to partly answer your question: Oregon makes it a felony to sign someone else's name to the identifying envelope.

Have you observed central count?

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.

OR resident here; while your USPS comment might be true, we also have local elections offices where you can walk in, fill out a ballot, and turn it in, just like states without vote-by-mail. You can also call or check online to ensure your vote was counted, so the USPS issue is mitigated somewhat for the people who care enough to check.

[edit] In addition, we have locked dropboxes in many locations so you can avoid the USPS and the elections office entirely.

It's also true that vote by mail silently disenfranchises about the same number of people it enfranchises.

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.

No election official has ever disputed my 1% statement. They've had plenty of opportunity to refute it (e.g. hearings).

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.

That's how Washington works. The primary system is mail in, but walk in voting is also available.

I'm pretty sure most Washington counties voted to do away with walk-in voting.

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.

Ah, I thought that's the whole state worked. I didn't realize it was up to the county (I'm only familiar with King).

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.

Is this different than how the count works in states whose ballots are delivered via volunteers with ballot boxes?

To the best of my knowledge, there are no USA jurisdictions that manually count ballots for the first count. Manual counting is only triggered by mandatory recounts, and then limited to just the races affected.

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).

voting machine switches FROM Romney to Obama (VIDEO)


covered by the Washington Post


Virginia does this as well. I think it's a great system. No need for costly machines, just optical scanners which can be spot checked by pulling a percentage to verify. Plus you can scale it very easily, just add more people for ID checking and more spaces to sit and fill in the boxes.

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.

We used to only have the optical scanners in Virginia. The machines are a recent addition, and a big step back. I want them gone.

Electronic voting machines are stupid, but I don't believe that's an inherent quality. Seemingly whenever electronic voting machines make the news the underlying problem is one of gross laziness or incompetence on the part of the manufacturer. It took me hours to clean my brain off the walls when I heard about the Diebold / McAfee mashup. [1]

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 [2] 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.



I'm disappointed that the LA Times story doesn't include my favorite anecdote from the Franken/Coleman recount: the person who voted for "lizard people" http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/11/23/so_w...

Wow! I can't believe they threw that ballot out! There was only one clearly marked choice!

I often vote for LIZARD PEOPLE as a write-in if there's one race where I don't know anything about the people in it, because of that guy. (I didn't know he had come forward until I searched for that story today.)

Douglas Adams had something to say along these lines: http://wso.williams.edu/~rcarson/lizards.html

Well obviously.

If you don't vote for the Lizard People, the wrong Lizard Person might get in.

Yes, my county in California does this as well. A voter verifiable paper trail should be a requirement for voting systems - either as an optically read input, or a voter verifiable paper output placed into a ballot box as an audit check against the electronic results.

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