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Bil Lewis

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

Electronic Voting (part 2)

August 27, 2008

Before we get to talking about the machinery, we still have a lot of
background to look at. (I know. I'm eager to get to the juicy bits
too. But we gotta think really hard about our objectives before we
start implementing them.)


What is it?

It's pretty much the idea that a society should behave in the way that
the majority of her citizens want. We use governments to do it and we
want our government to do what the majority wants. Now figuring out
what the citizens want is rather difficult to define and even harder
to enforce. People often have little understanding of the details of
government and are unable to make informed decisions. We wouldn't want
people to vote on those details (What kind of concrete should be used
in the new freeway?), so we have the people vote for other people who
will deal with the details. (Hopefully in the fashion they promised!)


And because we can't read people's minds, we have elections. We put
down the choices on a ballot, choose a period of time to do the
voting, and let the people vote. Not perfect, but the best we've
managed so far.

The main objective of democracy is to prevent oppressive
governments. If the vote is 15-49, then the people were pretty evenly
split and it probably doesn't make too much difference which choice is
made. Half the people will be happy, half sad, either way. If the vote
is 99-1 and the 1% wins... That's bad. That's what we're really afraid

Now we get to some tricky bits.

We want them to be able to vote their intentions. This means that
they'd have to understand the issues at hand. This can be very
difficult and we're not gonna touch it.

For them to be able to vote their intentions, they must not be
coercable. We don't want the company boss telling his workers how to
vote OR ELSE! (And it has happened a lot. Big problem.)

So we do secret ballots. Cool.

But how do we know if they've been counted correctly?

And am I certain that ONLY the the real ballots are in the pile?
Plenty of examples of "lost" ballot boxes showing up at the very last

(I was talking with Bob Schaffer after a talk, and he related a story
from his first campaign, where a "lost" box saved the election for
LBJ. It was duly noted that not only did this town voted unanimously
for LBJ, they even voted in alphabetical order!)

If we're stuffing paper ballots into a counting machine, I want to
know if I can trust that puppy. So I'll count a random precint by
hand. Great. (I'm trying to think of any such fraud in an election. I
don't think so. It would be a stupid way to defraud the
election. There are much better ways...) So that doesn't bother me.

It's how the ballots get to the counting machine that worries me. It's
those late ballot boxes. It's the precients that "disappear". These
are places where fraud can be easily covered up and denighed. 

The important thing is that it can be denighed. People will close
their eyes to almost anything, just to avoid political turmoil.

Have you really thought about the 2000 election?

No questions that TWO MILLION proper, legal voters were denighed their
right to vote. About one was directly related to registration
problems. Nothing the voter did incorrectly. The system failed
somehow.  The other million was stuff like voting lines, broken
equipment, power outages, clerical errors, all sorts of stuff.

Those people had the right to vote, right?

So what do you do if you screw something up that badly?

You fix it. 

You go back and do it right.

Americans really, really, really did not want to deal with it.

So, for voting, the point is that IF you can plausably denigh
something, that's good enough.

(Sad, huh?)

The most obviously clear and fair way of counting an election would be
what most third world countries do. Show everybody the empty box. Let
them watch voters depositing their ballots. Let the observers watch
the officials empty the box and count the votes, holding each one up
where everyone can see. 

It's so simple that it's really hard to cheat.

So, if you want to control the elections, you must either invent new
precincts that nobody's heard of before, or you have to intercept the
ballots before counting.

Why... You could do centralized counting!

If the boxes have to be transported, then things might happen to them
on the way. Etc, etc.

There are other issues involved.

Because ballots are so complex these days, holding them up is not so

So, do we want to use technology to do the work for us, or do we want
to make the ballots simpler? (Or both?)

I want simple ballots, man.

I don't understand half the referreda on the ballot! How the heck can
anyone make an informed choice? Why do I want to float a bond for a
jail? What about midnight basketball? (Why am I voting about midnight

I personally think that the European-style party system is better than
our personality-based system. All you have to do is cast one vote. And
you know what you're voting for because you know what your party
does. I think it's a lot more democratic.

I lose this one.

So the actual answer is that we use technology, of course. (We just want
to keep in mind why.)

So... to prevent coercion (which has been a very serious problem), we vote
secretly. We go through elaborate contortions to convince ourselves
that our ballot is secret. And unfortunately, this turns into our
Achilles heel, because we sacrifice correctness for secrecy. Either
way, democracy loses.

Well, actually, it doesn't. Democracy wins because the result is
"kinda close" and we're not so worried about the 51-49, it's the 99-1
the scares us.

That thought makes me feel better.

I mean, the details that you guys have already brought up, and the
scads of incriminating, exclupating, excrusiating horror stories that
I intend to relate would certainly put us all into depressive
stupors. Were it not for the thought that "kinda close" is actually
close enough.

(Now, if you REALLY care about democracy, then you should be talking
to the people who ain't votin. THAT is the weakness in American

It's midnight.

I *PROMISE* I'll get to electronics next time!




(where is the [email protected]#%@% spelling checker in this thing???) 

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