If you were to listen to an average modern discussion about election fraud, you might only wait minutes before someone mentions “the obvious problem” and starts talking about voting machines, often citing them as a severe security risk, if not the root of all evil. The problem of election fraud, however, existed millennia before humans first understood the nature of electricity, not to mention computers, modern election systems, and the Internet. The fact remains that most people don’t trust voting machines because people tend not to trust that which they don’t understand.
Overview: There are immense technical, sociological, political, and psychological hurdles which prevent individuals, society, and governments from trusting and using properly-designed electronic voting systems to eliminate election fraud. Regardless of these hurdles, however, the fact remains that while all election systems are subject to many forms of fraud and bias, only a properly-designed electronic voting system provides the most safeguards, controls, and audit trails to minimize fraud while simultaneously providing various automated mechanisms to minimize the many biases inherent in paper-based election systems.
Before we get into the details, let’s touch on a few key concepts, namely the difference between a mere machine and a system, along with both types of voting fraud and bias which must be dealt with in any effective system.
THREE KEY CONCEPTS:
1) Machines vs Systems: Although these two terms are related, they are not synonymous. Not only can multiple machines be a part of a larger system, but multiple systems can be contained in a single machine. Furthermore, for millennia various voting systems have existed comprised of nothing more complicated than a count of hands witnessed by the masses and recorded by a single numerical inscription on a piece of wood or stone. Yet amazingly, such a simple system has many of the safeguards we seek in an electronic voting system. We need only be able to identify what they were, what’s missing, and figure out how to safely, effectively, and securely incorporate them into our electronic system.
A system is a set of interacting or interdependent component parts forming a complex/intricate whole. Every system is delineated by its spatial and temporal boundaries, surrounded and influenced by its environment, described by its structure and purpose and expressed in its functioning. The term system may also refer to a set of rules that governs structure or behavior.
Put simply, a system is a “black box” that accepts inputs, does various things on the inputs, and produces outputs. The human body is a system. A teacher’s method for determining class grades is a system. Our national election process is a system.
A machine is a tool containing one or more parts that uses energy to perform an intended action. Machines are usually powered by mechanical, chemical, thermal, or electrical means, and are often motorized. Historically, a power tool also required moving parts to classify as a machine. However, the advent of electronics has led to the development of power tools without moving parts that are considered machines. Computers themselves are considered machines that process and move information.
2) Bias: A bias results in a failure to accurately perceive reality. It is an inclination or outlook to present or hold a partial perspective, often accompanied by a refusal to consider the possible merits of alternative points of view. Biases can be learned implicitly within cultural contexts. People may develop biases toward or against an individual, an ethnic group, a nation, a religion, a social class, a political party, theoretical paradigms and ideologies within academic domains, or a species. Biased means one-sided, lacking a neutral viewpoint, or not having an open mind. Bias can come in many forms and is related to prejudice and intuition.
In voting systems, the mere placement of candidates on a ballot sheet can introduce bias, with candidates listed first or higher on the sheet or monitor tending to receive more votes. In science and engineering, a bias is a systematic error. Statistical bias is an unfair sampling of a population, or to an estimation process that does not give accurate results on average. For example, when less than the entire population votes, it introduces statistical bias that results in election results that may reflect the will of the voters, but not the will of the people as a whole. Similarly, requiring a group of people to show their hands introduces more than one major bias with the potential to severely distort election results.
Eliminating biases is an important concept in the proper design of an election system. However, attempts to correct biases are often fraught with complex issues, not the least of which includes one faction blaming the other of attempting to influence the election. Generally speaking, while it’s entirely appropriate to eliminate front-end biases such as name placement on a sheet or monitor, or ensuring that all voters have reasonable access to the polls, attempting to correct even known biases after the voting has take place is usually prohibited.
Major categories of bias include cognitive bias, conflicts of interest, statistical bias, contextual bias, and prejudice. Reducing or eliminating the many kinds of bias in an electronic voting system requires understanding the detailed and sometimes complex nature of each of dozens of specific biases.
3) Fraud: Electoral fraud or vote rigging is illegal interference with the process of an election. Acts of fraud affect vote counts to bring about an election result, whether by increasing the vote share of the favored candidate, depressing the vote share of the rival candidates, or both. What constitutes electoral fraud under law varies from country to country.
While bias is usually the cause of inadvertent skewing of voting results, fraud is intentional in nature, an attempt to change the outcome to reflect something other than the will of the people. Although minimizing or eliminating election bias is desirable, it is absolutely imperative to freedom itself that nations combat fraud on all fronts. A failure to do so results in a wide range of problems from general voter apathy to civil unrest, and if severe, has been known to result in revolution and the overthrow — if not physical elimination — of the offending government or political party engaged in fraud.
As with bias, reducing or eliminating fraud in an electronic voting system requires a thorough understanding of the many avenues through which fraud can be introduced. Only some of these techniques are electronic in nature, while the rest involve policies, monitoring, along with the many highly effective tools, techniques and procedures developed to mitigate and even eliminate fraud.
We cannot rely on any machine to provide this protection by itself, whether that machine is a lever-pulled, chad-punching machine of paper and steel, an electronic voting kiosk, a website, or a phone app. A properly designed, fraud and bias-mitigating electronic voting system incorporates a many-vectored, multi-layered approach combining interleaved elements of both human and computer validation, authentication, encryption, and auditing designed to both prevent fraud as well as detect any evidence of fraud both during and after the fact. When such a system is properly designed, these complex safeguards are almost entirely transparent to the user, no more difficult than making a withdrawal from an ATM or your bank. The system is also designed to make it very simple to be implemented by minimally trained agents in the field, essentially as simply as pulling the machines into power, then the Internet, and turning it on, much the same as one might relocate their Ooma Telo, a VoIP internet telephone, while maintaining the rigorous security protocols inherent in these devices. Field inspectors and auditors, however, would have significantly more important duties to ensure the integrity of the system, and their own backgrounds would subject to the same scrutiny as the machines and the election processes themselves.
Conclusion: Taken together and implemented properly, with multiple layers of security and safeguards, protecting an electronic voting system process would be a relatively inexpensive yet immensely powerful accomplish, one that is many times more difficult to break than even the most secure of banks.
Here’s another workable solution:
1. Start with paper copies of all ballots, even if it’s a small, voter-verified printout. If electronic voting is used, all votes SHALL be initialed by the individual voter.