A Plan to Ensure Accurate Vote Tallies

It was early in 1981.  With a tax refund in hand and a newfound burning interest in computers, I splurged and bought my very own.  Within days, I learned to program it in BASIC, later moving on to C, assembler, and, eventually, various other programming languages.  I was hooked.  Eventually, I went back to school to earn a BS in Computer Science (with a minor in mathematics).  My grades were exemplary and I was the “go-to” student in every classroom, from programming to math to English to biology (you know, the student that the teacher would go to when no one else had the answer to a question).  My education did not end there – and I spent years programming systems for the two largest companies in the telecommunications business (at that time).  There, I was one of the go-to guys in our development groups, depending on the matter at hand.  (It’s hard to be the foremost expert on millions of lines of code.  It takes a team.)

Am I bragging?  Maybe, but I’m not looking for accolades; I already got plenty of those.  I’m simply giving you, the reader, valid reasons to carefully consider that which I am about to propose.

At this point, you probably think me a geek.  Computer expertise and early adopter status aside, I never identified as one – not even after using edlin (a true, gray-haired geek will appreciate that) to crack a security feature on one of my first store-bought computer games because I was tired of looking up the magic word on a stupid code wheel.  Nonetheless, I have long appreciated the wonderful tools that we have in computers; you needn’t be a geek to do that.

On the other hand, as someone who taught himself (okay, with immeasurable assistance from book authors and added to that via formal education) how to program computers – and crack other people’s programs – I have also long appreciated the unreliability of computer systems.  The machines, themselves, are generally quite reliable, but given a choice, I wouldn’t bet my life – or yours – on anyone else’ line of code.

Any protestations about my claims here will be summarily dismissed, just as I dismissed the ignorant and the opportunists when Chicken Little warned us of the catastrophe that Y2K was going to wreak on computers worldwide.  (I worked for Motorola in 1999 and was handed the responsibility of ensuring that the SmartZone Radio System product would be Y2K-proof.  Many emergency and utility networks depended on it; nonworking radios were not an option.  Among millions of lines of code, only one error existed: a programmer misused a date function in such a way as to display the wrong year in a printed report.)  There were a myriad of other bugs in the code (as there are in any large system), so the fact that one of them happened to be related to Y2K was at once not surprising and telling in that the problem it created was about as inconsequential as can be.

Much as the 1990’s gave us opportunists who made a killing off of creating Y2K fears, we have now been in a protracted period of computer giantists (yes, I just made up that word) making a killing by creating insurmountable security problems, which in turn has created a monstrous ($75 BILLION in 2015) demand for cyber security services.  We are putting things online that should NEVER be put online, paying extra to keep it “safe,” and getting our identities stolen, anyway.  Oh, yes, – and our power grid is at risk – and our intellectual property is being stolen…  The list goes on.

Huh.  Care to buy a vat of Vaseline to coat and protect your sidewalks?  I (or a friend of mine) can sell you some aspirin and bandages, too.  You will probably need them.

So, about voting…  Imagine my absolute horror when I, a committed patriot who believes in the principles upon which our republic was founded, a constitutionalist to the core, found out that computers were going to be used to record and tally votes in elections that determine who our government officials were to be!  The algorithms (sequences of computer programming instructions for arriving at the desired results) for the voting process are very straightforward.  In fact, a reliable voting machine could be programmed by a solid undergraduate student.

Rather than getting into all the possible potential for fraud (never mind mistakes in, yes, a relatively simple system), I ask you to consider one thing: are these machines being checked by security experts?  If not, why not?  To simply assume that there are no security concerns is ignorance or negligence beyond the pale.  On the other hand, if the machines are being checked by security experts, then why?  The answer is simple: there are security concerns.

With electronic voting, the only way to verify the vote tally in a given precinct is to

  1. Instruct all voters to verify a printout of their selections (standard on our local machines).
  2. Have poll workers – from both major parties and interested, independent observers – tally, by hand, votes from the aforementioned printouts.

Of course, if we are to go to that trouble, there is no point in having the computer count the votes in the first place.  Also, it does not address the “black box” (another geek term meaning some process that is hidden from view within a given context) that is the reporting of precinct tallies to the state and the state’s accurate summation of all of the precinct votes.  Here’s where I do an about face and embrace technology.  Without further ado, here is my suggestion for a voting system that would completely eliminate the possibility of computer (programming or otherwise) error or fraudulent reporting affecting final vote tallies.

  1. Return to paper ballots – regular paper ballots with big boxes in which to put “X” marks.  (I know, punch cards are easier to count with machines, but those machines could be targeted for fraudulent results.  Then there’s the hanging chad problem.)  If a voter can’t get the center of an “X” in a reasonably-sized box out of carelessness, too bad; it can’t be blamed on the system.  If they’re physically challenged, they should be allowed a helper in the booth at their request, and of their choice.
  2. Within precinct polling places, vote totals for each candidate need to be agreed upon by judges from different parties.  A hard (paper) copy of all candidates’ vote totals, signed by all judges and observers present for the count shall be given to each one of those judges and observers.
    • On this sheet shall be toll-free contact numbers of state officials who shall be available twenty-four hours per day until all contests are ceded and who are empowered to look into reports of incorrect vote totals and/or suspected fraudulent activity.
  3. All precinct results shall be uploaded to their state’s server, which shall, programmatically and immediately post those results on a web site that is accessible to all the public.  On that web site,
    • There shall be a page dedicated to each precinct.  Besides whatever other information deemed to be useful, the precinct, identified by number and locale, shall list the number of votes that each candidate in every contest received in that precinct.
    • There shall be a page dedicated to each contest in the state.  On that page, along with whatever other information may be of use, there shall be a chart (such as a spreadsheet) or a list (in plain text or formatted by a word processor) of precincts and the number of votes received by each candidate in each precinct.  At the bottom of the chart or list shall be the current statewide totals.
  4. After tallies are uploaded to the state, it shall be incumbent upon all precinct judges and observers with certified (signed) copies of the vote totals (from (2), above) to check the numbers of votes shown on the state web site with the certified numbers in their possession.
    • If there are any discrepancies noted by any such judge or observer, they shall immediately call the toll-free number provided.  State official(s) shall assign a case number, immediately correct any errors where possible, and file a report for further review.
    • In any case, no election shall be considered complete until the precinct totals shown on the state web site match those on all precinct judges’ certified vote total sheets.  Election commissions shall allow a reasonable amount of time for election results to be contested.
  5. Judges and poll observers checking the state web site for accurate reporting of their precinct totals should also verify that the combined totals for all reporting precincts in any contest are correct.  I.e., they can add them up themselves, using pen and paper, a calculator, or copying and pasting them into a spreadsheet on their own computers.  Furthermore, anyone viewing the state’s web site can also perform the step of adding up the listed votes – which would almost surely be done by the most interested people.
  6. Within 24 hours of poll closing, every precinct shall send an original, certified (signed) copy of precinct vote totals shall be forwarded to the state election commission via secure courier – preferably an officer of the law.

Note that the above refers only to local and statewide elections.  For federal elections (president and vice president), national reporting is not strictly necessary because the real election happens in the Electoral College.  Nonetheless, people would have an interest in knowing how the Electoral College will be expected to vote, so the federal government should also have a web site showing the votes for federal offices, much as the states do: precinct by precinct.

Precinct reporting can be accomplished in any of a number of ways.  Two that leap to mind are through simple forms on a web site, custom client-server software, or even manual transcription by state election commission employees upon receipt of their certified hard copies as they arrive from the precincts.  No matter how the votes are entered, the important points are the facts that

  1. Multiple people in each precinct will be able to easily verify that the correct number of votes have been tallied.
  2. Incorrect vote totals for any candidate in any contest in any precinct will be instantly visible for all the world to see.
  3. Anyone can view the precinct totals (which will have been verified) and add them up for themselves to see that the correct grand totals have been awarded to all candidates in all races.

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