E-Voting News and Analysis, from the Experts

Sunday December 12, 2004

More e-voting problems

Filed under: — Joseph Lorenzo Hall @ 12:00 pm UTC

(I am just going to update this post as I hear of more problems as they are reported in the press…)

These are courtesy of VotersUnite!:

Monday November 01, 2004

Designing for DoS in Elections

Filed under: — Joseph Lorenzo Hall @ 5:53 pm UTC

Along with all the benefits of using networked technology in election administration and politics, come all the bugaboos.

Specifically, we’ve seen intentional and unintentional denial-of-service (DoS). At the time of this writing, the wonderful mypollingplace.com has been brought to its knees by the heightened attention of voters trying to find their polling place (no word on the possibility that this is malicious). We’ve also seen DoS problems in Georgia, , Tennessee, Florida and Texas with the failure of electronic “poll books” in polling places connected with central registration databases. (Note: Here is a complete list of poll-book problems courtesy of VotersUnite! and their database of problems reported in the news for this election.)

In fact, the gracious Rob Malda allowed the VVF/EFF folks to plant a story on Slashdot in order to test the resiliency of a few critical web services and contingency plans that will be used by the massive Election Protection Coalition in tomorrow’s election. You might think that all of this is a tad paranoid, but there’s current litigation in New Hampshire involving a plot in the November 2002 election where one partisan group hired a telemarketing firm to keep the voter protection hotline of another group busy for most of E-Day.

What should a poll watcher watch?

Filed under: — Wallach @ 1:34 pm UTC

I’m speaking tonight to some local citizens who want to be poll watchers tomorrow, so I wrote a detailed list of things to which they should pay attention. My advice is tailored to Harris County (Houston), Texas, although much of it should apply anywhere else with electronic voting systems. Needless to say, I’d appreciate any feedback others might have on my advice.

Touchscreen Problems in New Mexico

Filed under: — Felten @ 10:08 am UTC

Early voters in New Mexico report that when they choose one candidate, the voting machine sometimes displays a vote for a different candidate. This is reminiscent of the Texas problems Dan Wallach wrote about below.

Here’s a quote from Jim Ludwick’s story in the Albuquerque Journal:

[Kim Griffith] went to Valle Del Norte Community Center in Albuquerque, planning to vote for John Kerry. “I pushed his name, but a green check mark appeared before President Bush’s name,” she said.

Griffith erased the vote by touching the check mark at Bush’s name. That’s how a voter can alter a touch-screen ballot.

She again tried to vote for Kerry, but the screen again said she had voted for Bush. The third time, the screen agreed that her vote should go to Kerry.

She faced the same problem repeatedly as she filled out the rest of the ballot. On one item, “I had to vote five or six times,” she said.

Michael Cadigan, president of the Albuquerque City Council, had a similar experience when he voted at City Hall.

“I cast my vote for president. I voted for Kerry and a check mark for Bush appeared,” he said.

He reported the problem immediately and was shown how to alter the ballot.

Cadigan said he doesn’t think he made a mistake the first time. “I was extremely careful to accurately touch the button for my choice for president,” but the check mark appeared by the wrong name, he said.

In Sandoval County, three Rio Rancho residents said they had a similar problem, with opposite results. They said a touch-screen machine switched their presidential votes from Bush to Kerry.

This sounds like a problem with the touch sensors on the machine’s screens. Touchscreens use one mechanism to paint images onto the screen, and a separate mechanism to measure where the screen has been touched. Many touch sensors react oddly when the screen is touched in more than one place at the same time: they report a single touch between the actual touch points. If a voter rests his hand on the frame around the edge of the machine’s screen, the edge of that hand may accidentally trigger the touch sensor. If the voter then uses his other hand to choose a candidate, the touch sensor may interpret these two simultaneous touches (one at the edge of the screen, and one on the desired candidate) as a touch somewhere in between. And that may be read as a vote for the wrong candidate.

Though the detailed explanation looks different from the Texas problems Dan discussed, the big picture is the same – computerized touchscreen systems don’t behave as reasonable voters expect them to, so some votes are read for the wrong candidate. It’s like an electronic version of the infamous Palm Beach County butterfly ballot from four years ago.

Voters: remember to watch your voting machine carefully to make sure it isn’t accidentally misreading your input.

Sunday October 31, 2004

Human-factors issues in Houston and elsewhere

Filed under: — Wallach @ 6:00 pm UTC

I’ve heard variants of this story cropping up around Texas on systems using Hart Intercivic’s eSlate voting system. The general problem goes something like this: a voter selects “straight ticket Democratic Party” and then presses the “Cast Ballot” button. The machine then presents a summary of the voter’s choices, and, to the voter’s horror, they find “Bush/Cheney” selected rather than “Kerry/Edwards". I’ve heard variants on this story elsewhere on different voting machines, but I think the eSlate story is easier to analyze.

What went wrong? Maybe we’re talking about:

  • Human-factors error: the voter pressed the wrong sequence of buttons, perhaps a result of a confusing interface.
  • Software error: a bug in the machine software caused the flip.
  • Hardware error: something physically in the machine broke or misbehaved.
  • Tampering / fraud: a deliberately fradulent modification to the machine caused the flip.

The easiest cases to dismiss are hardware errors (the machines otherwise appear to be working fine) and tampering (if you were smart enough to tamper with the software to change the results, you wouldn’t have the summary screen show the other candidate). This leaves software bugs and human-factors issues. My gut tells me we’re looking at a human-factors problem.

On this particular machine, when you select a “straight ticket” vote, it causes all races that have a candidate for the selected party to be highlighted with a red dot. Other candidates are dimmed into a grey color with lower contrast than you have before you make a selection. How could a voter get confused? The “straight ticket” selection appears as the top “race” on the ballot. You turn the “select” wheel to scroll to the party you want and press the big “enter” button. After this, the machine helpfully advances the current selection to the next race, the presidential race. If a voter were to think that the “enter” button had not done anything yet (perhaps because there is a noticable delay while it is performing the selection) and were to then press the button again, they might indeed end up selecting the top candidate on the list of presidential candidates, who just happens to be George W. Bush.

Is this the only plausible explanation for the behavior some are experiencing? Far from it. Luckily, if this is the problem, then the summary screen is the solution. It requires the voter to make sure that these selections are indeed the ones the voter wanted. And, indeed, some voters caught their mistakes and fixed them. In that sense, the system worked precisely as it was designed.

How can the vendor engineer their system to avoid the problem next time around? For starters, they could reduce the latency after selecting a straight ticket with some performance tuning of their software. They could also use a “Just a minute…” popup window of some kind to make it clear that the machine got the command and is working on processing it. They could even consider ignoring button presses that occured while the machine was busy. However, whatever they try, they need to evaluate it. It’s called the scientific method. You get a bunch of test subject voters, with demographics representing people in the real world rather than just college students, and you can experimentally compare the “control” group with the old system to the “experimental” group with the modified system. If the control group is more accurate, then you go back to the drawing board.

This kind of testing would be of fantastic value for every electronic or paper-based voting system. For example, human-factors testing would have caught the “butterfly ballot” issues in Florida in the 2000 presidential election. Such testing could be conducted by the vendor, on new software releases, and by the customers (counties, states, or other municipalities) for each new election. I suspect that human-factors testing will become a growing and important engineering step for any voting system, regardless of its technology.

(edit: I got the names of some of the buttons wrong – it’s corrected now.)

Saturday October 30, 2004

Rundown of E-voting Problems So Far

Filed under: — Felten @ 9:39 pm UTC

Donna Wentworth at EFF Deep Links has an interesting rundown on the E-voting problems that have been seen so far, in early voting, and what they teach us.

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