Can Current Technology Insure Fair Elections?

08 Jun

Can Current Technology Insure Fair Elections?

Richard Charnin

June 8, 2011
Updated: June 12, 2014

Posters who claim that technology can never guarantee that our elections will be honest are missing the overall by focusing on only one factor in the equation. They claim that any system can be hacked (which is true) – but they leave it at that. They fail to consider that technology, used in conjunction with low-tech hand-counts, provides a more secure voting system than hand-counts alone.

Current voting systems are designed to be hacked. We need systems that are designed to work. It’s that simple. Data redundancy, auditable processes, open source code, non-proprietary systems, expert design (not r/w hacks), voters can confirm their own vote. What’s wrong with that? Let experts check the code and agree that it would work. As expert Steve Spoonamore has said: you just need to make sure that 1+1=2. It’s not rocket science. If voters have the ability to check their vote after it has been transmitted to a tabulator and find a mistake, they can report it. It is a citizen auditable process. It’s just common sense.

We are the voters. We own the hardware. We own the software. We check our votes. This way we have the best of both worlds: A HYBRID system of hand-counted ballot summaries posted for viewing at the precinct as well as on the Internet. Each ballot contains an anonymous voter code. Privacy is not an issue; the voters can check their votes online. It is a self-auditing system. The key is data redundancy and transparency– and that is why an Open Source/Internet system can provide a solution. The Diebold and ES&S voting machines and central tabulators use proprietary code for one reason: they are designed to be manipulated. Non-proprietary hardware and Open Source software is the solution, not the current systems from right-wing corporations that steal elections while Congress looks the other way.

Steve Spoonamore is allowed to analyze Diebold ATM software, but prohibited from looking at Diebold’s voting machine code. Spoonamore says that each voter should be allowed to check their vote electronically on the County Web site. That is exactly what I have been saying all along. He agrees with my contention that Open Source is a must. He calls it “freeware”. Same thing.

Spoonamore says that the software should be made available for free. What he doesn’t say is that there would be an additional benefit: there could be no bribing of election officials to install unverifiable machines that have consistently failed inspection procedures.

Listen to the Spoonamore interview here (parts 7 and 8):

The solution is simple, so simple that it has never been and will never be proposed by corrupt politicians and election officials. The use of current closed systems by election officials and their refusal to consider an Open Source solution is itself proof that it would work. Virtually all voters would have online access to their vote. And many would check to see that it was correct. They would in effect be auditing and exit polling themselves.

This excellent Institutional Investor article discusses problems with voting machines and mentions my work in the analysis of Election Fraud

To the skeptics: True Vote count = hand-vote count at the voting site (they neglect to mention the need to tabulate ALL the other precincts)

To the technologists: True Vote count = hand-vote count (posted at the voting site) + voter-verified tabulation on the Internet of ALL precincts

The technology skeptics offer no solution, just the mantra that our best technology is incapable of insuring fair elections – and that every system can be hacked. They fail to consider the primary goal of any security system: data redundancy and built-in safeguards to detect fraud. The skeptics speak with a tone of final authority – in sound bytes. But how do they know a nearly foolproof system cannot be developed? There are a lot of computer experts who are smarter than any posters here who want FAIR elections (like Steven Spoonamore). Why not let them create a prototype? Refusal to even consider that a technical solution could enhance hand-counting ballots only serves to enable the corruption. But what if the experts can provide such a hybrid solution? Would they accept it?

Why do the skeptics display the arrogance of supreme authority? Why do they continue to pontificate their version of the Ultimate Truth? Who are they to say that TECHNOLOGY would never work; that corrupt election officials can never be outsmarted by experts in computer security and software design; that non-proprietary, robust hardware/software based election systems would never work? How do they know that? What is their motive in promoting the myth that technology could never work?

The fault lies not in our technology, but in our FAILURE to apply it to solve THE problem.

One skeptic claimed that those who believed that technology would work “refuse to see that transparency, simplicity, comprehension and control of the electoral process by the citizen-voters is essential to their opponents’ view of what is required for democratic process, and that no technologically sophisticated “solution” can satisfy those requirements”.

He has it exactly backwards. An Open Source system is the only one which provides full transparency that voters can have confidence in because they would own the machines and the software and could verify that their votes (and those of others) have been counted correctly.

I don’t pretend to be at all qualified to provide the actual solution. I have merely suggested that communication security experts and professional (even amateur) software developers can collaborate in writing one.

The poster adds that voting systems are unlike other “systems under the operational control of the institutions that maintains a stake in those systems operating properly for the benefit of those institutions, and that the electoral process by its nature is one of divided interests. (Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.)”

He misses the essential point that the problem lies not in technology, but in those who have the power to use it and fail to do so. I have said that a voting system could be designed such that the probability would be extremely low that corrupt election officials and hackers would succeed in miscounting the votes.

Election officials have zero knowledge of technology. They are not even good at hiding their transparent efforts in Wisconsin of stuffing ballot bags or stacking 50 ballots in a row for the Republican in a city that voted 67% for his opponent. A robust, transparent, data redundant system would never allow these amateurish anomalies. In the highly unlikely event that a hacker was able to break into the Internet database, it would be obvious: the totals would not match the precinct-posted hard copy and the voters own copy.

The skeptic goes on to say: “I’m sure that I could design a electronic voting system that is guaranteed to work properly if I could continue to control all the actors and all the checks and balances along the way — and if I stayed honest — but so what? Why should voters want or need such a system?”

“There is no reason for voters to trust me, and even if they did the system (not their method for “checking” how their vote was counter) would remain opaque to them, and there would be no trace of collective participatory democracy in the vote counting process, which like the so-called negativists I consider important, if not essential, to the process”.

Even if he could design such a system, why would he want to do it all by himself? Why not collaborate with other experts who could check his design? Would he be willing to test a prototype? Even if it is “opaque” to voters as he calls it, the only relevant question is: would it solve the problem? That is all that matters. Does he really believe that voters care to know the details of how the system is designed? Do they have a clue as to how their financial transactions are processed?

Of course there is no reason to trust him; that’s why he would have to work with a team of professionals in designing the system. There is no reason for voters to trust him if others cannot revue his code to make sure that 1+1 is always equal to 2 and that there is never a reduction in the vote count.

He states that there would be no trace of collective participation in the vote-counting process – and in so doing contradicts himself. Voters would participate by checking to make sure that votes posted on the wall of their precinct match the votes uploaded to the Internet. There is no way that they can do that using current voting systems. But they could if they had a copy of their ballot and were able to check that it was properly recorded on the Net. That is quite an improvement over the current “system”.

Another skeptic asked: “And exactly how would this stop ballot box stuffing? Ghost voters do NOT check their ballots on the internet. Counting the hard copy ballots at the precinct that the voters marked. Counting the night of the election while ballots are still in full view and custody of numerous observers — that isn’t simple? Guess not”.

Voters would be assigned sequential IDs on the ballots that would be recorded in poll books. A summary of votes cast would be posted periodically on the precinct wall by Voter ID. The number of entries in the poll book would have to match the posted summary. The corresponding ballot records would be uploaded to the Internet – where they are also sorted by Voter ID. The number of ballot data records in the Internet precinct database would have to match the posted summary at the precinct.

The poster forgets that total votes cast must be tabulated for each precinct in each county. Who would do the tabulation? Would it be done by hand calculator or abacus or computer? How would voters know that their vote and those of other voters in all other precincts would be tabulated correctly? Where would they go to check their vote other than on the precinct wall? There is just one feasible location where they could check that their vote was tabulated correctly: on the Internet. Can the poster provide an alternative? Or would he just trust that the thousands of hand-counted locations were tabulated correctly – and that there was a perfect chain-of-custody?

Wisconsin Supreme Court Election
Election results were not posted in full public view. How, when and by whom were the DRE poll tapes generated? Who wrote the proprietary software? Who manufactured the voting machines? We already know that Why were the ballots kept in sealed bags in Kathy Nickolaus’ office? Why was she allowed to use software that differed from those used in other counties? Could anyone else view the code? Could she have hacked an Open Source system developed by professionals to run on non-proprietary hardware? I doubt it. Could she have changed the hard copy results posted on the wall of each voting location if it was guarded by several independent monitors? Not likely. But even if she were able to bribe the monitors, could she have a) sneaked into the home of each voter whose vote she changed on the hard copy posted at the precinct, b) search the house and find the voter’s ballot copy, c) forge the voter’s copy so it would match the corresponding copy posted at the voting location, d) hacked the uploaded posted summaries on the Internet, and e) install a virus on each voter’s computer to prevent them from logging on to the Internet to check their vote and voting location total?

Only if she were able to clone herself into thousands of Superwomen. But miracles do happen. After all, they found 50 consecutive ballots for Prosser in Verona, a town that voted 67% for Kloppenburg. The probability of that anomaly occurring in an Open Source Voting system: P= (1-0.67)^50 = 8.4E-25 = 1 in a trillion trillion.

Election Transparency Project
The Humboldt (CA) County Election Transparency Project (ETP) is a documented case in which technology uncovered vote miscounts. Volunteers scanned ballots after the election to verify the integrity of the Diebold/Premier machines. The images were made publicly available and used TEVs ballot counting software

They found that 197 ballots were deleted by the Diebold/Premier GEMS software used by Humboldt County to tally the vote. This software glitch resulted in the certification of inaccurate election results. The Election Administration Research Center at UC Berkeley site contains ballot images that were scanned during this project (the same images can also be obtained on DVD from the Elections Office).The ballot extraction code reads the ballot image and uses OCR to automatically determine the candidates listed on the ballot. It reads the images and stores the results in a database.

The ETP is overseen by officials from the Humboldt County Elections Office. However, the “elbow grease” of this project, with a couple of exceptions, is done by volunteers who care about the integrity of our elections. These volunteers, working on weekends, holidays, and evenings, use a high-end office scanner to scan all paper ballots cast in an election. The scanner produces digital images of the ballots. The ballots are “digitally signed” to mark their authenticity and uploaded to the Internet for distribution. These images are also available on DVD at the Elections Office. One notable feature is that each ballot is imprinted with a unique serial number before it is imaged. Part of the serial number contains information about on the box the ballot comes from. This feature “ties together” an image on the Internet with the paper ballot.

A site belonging to ETP volunteer Mitch Trachtenberg contains an Open Source software program that automates the counting of these ballot images. This auditing tool is quite valuable in producing a tally that can be used to compare against the results produced by software that is not subject to inspection by members of the general public. In short, this tool alleviates the need of counting ballots by hand and does so in a transparent manner.


Posted by on June 8, 2011 in Uncategorized


3 responses to “Can Current Technology Insure Fair Elections?

  1. Susan

    June 14, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    First, thank you for your work. I often provide a link to your site when discussing election integrity.

    I am still in the early stages of thinking about your post but have some questions.
    How would I be able to verify that my vote and the votes of others have been counted correctly? I understand that I would be able to see my vote but how would I know that the other votes posted were actually correct. How would all the elderly and poor that are not connected to the internet be able to verify their vote? Would there be a way to hack into this vote verifying system so that voters are directed to a different site than the real site?

    What is there to prevent election officials from being bribed to allow access to the machines for the installing of malware?

    In the beginning, I think that you are supportive of hand counting with a machine count to compare and verify but at the end of your post, it seem like you are trying to eliminate any hand count. Is that accurate?

    Thank you,

    • richardcharnin

      June 15, 2011 at 12:57 am


      You verify your vote by logging on the Internet using your unique voter ID.
      You would check the total votes for your precinct by comparing the total to the precinct hand count summary updated and posted on the wall which would be guarded by several individuals.
      The elderly would have their paper ballots and could always ask a relative to check their vote on the Internet.
      Any system can be hacked theoretically, but It is extremely unlikely. If it was hacked and the votes were changed, it would be obvious… because you still have your copy and the copy posted on the precinct wall so you can check your vote and the precinct total.
      If there is a discrepancy, you have a copy of your ballot and the precinct total.
      The system would be Open Source. It would be designed to check for any changes to the code.

      Corrupt election officials would not have access to the hardware, as they do now with the closed, proprietary central tabulators stored in their office.

      The Internet functions as an Open Source central tabulator.

      I have ALWAYS said that we need hand-counted ballots but ALSO need a hard-copy summary posted at the voting location AND uploaded to the Internet.



  2. Susan

    June 15, 2011 at 2:56 am

    Thank you for the answers and clarifications. It help me understand how this would work.

    For the record, I in no way trust the majority of election officials and think the ones in Waukasha, WI are the rule/norm, not the exception. Since 2000, I have thought it more likely that my vote was not counted as cast.

    I admit to being very sensitive to the needs and concerns of the poor and elderly when it comes to elections and voting. The reason for that is the current push for Voter Photo ID laws to address the non-problem of voter fraud. I know students will be affected by the new laws but think they will have computer access.

    I am still thinking about the question of would I want to check my vote on the internet. I was thinking that what would be shown on the internet is how the machine counted the vote but then I think you are saying it would be the actual ballot. I admit that I do have concerns about how to maintain a secret ballot because of how that may relate to vote buying and possibly issues concerning an individual’s employment.

    I am starting to think of what you propose as a hand counted paper ballot with an instant/same time audit but I know I could be completely wrong. I’ll read all this again in the morning and may be able to see things more clearly.

    Because cyber security and hacking stories have been in the news lately, I ask questions to help me learn more about how this could be addresses. Recently I was in the car and happened to hear this OnPoint program. If you don’t have time for the whole program, you may like to listen to minutes 27-33. I thought about the current voting machines when I heard this.

    Again, thank you for providing some clarification. I would like to see your work and the work of others addressing the lack of election integrity be front page news in every print and on-line publication in the country as well as other news outlets.

    Thank you,


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