Oversight of Elections or Technology?

By Teresa Hommel


Presented at

New Standards for Elections:

A Forum on Technical and Nontechnical Requirements for Voting Systems

Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study

Harvard University


February 12. 2005



Thank you to Carol Rose, Executive Director, ACLU of Massachusetts; Alex Brown of the IEEE; and Dr. Rebecca Mercuri, contributing member of the IEEE P1583 committee and Radcliffe Institute Fellow, for inviting me to this important conference and offering me an opportunity to speak.


I am a technologist. I have worked with computers since 1967. I am an activist. I have been working full time on the issue of election integrity and electronic voting for almost two years.


But I am speaking here today as an American citizen: Jan Doe, a voter.


I want to start with the basic premises of my thinking.


1. Conducting elections is not a service the government can provide to the people. It is an activity that the people must perform for themselves to select their government.


2. Whoever conducts the election must require public observation of every aspect of the work -- every procedure -- to avoid the suspicion of fraud.


3. Any procedure that cannot be, or has not been, observed by multipartisan observers is suspect, and the election lacks full legitimacy.


4. My next point concerns "means, motive and opportunity."  There is constant motivation to be in public office due to the power to control public money and other reasons. There will always be people, individually and in organizations, who are willing to commit fraud to achieve public office.


The computer provides both means and opportunity to people who are computer-savvy, and conceals fraud from my observation -- me, Jane Doe the voter -- as well as from John Doe, my local election director, or my local poll worker, or election observer, none of whom know anything about computers.


5. Any system of laws, rules, regulations, and standards of all kinds that do not allow and facilitate public, multipartisan observation is also suspect, and must be viewed as a political setup for a power-grab, and damaging to our election system and the legitimacy of our representative government.


Given these premises as a starting point, there is no doubt that our federal election standards will fail to promote election integrity because there is no standard -- meaning requirement -- for public, multipartisan observation of all election procedures, especially computerized vote-recording and vote-counting.


Standards for technology cannot ensure election integrity because elections are not about technology.


I would like to hear every computer scientist say these things:


1. Elections are not about technology.


2. Computerized vote-recording and vote-counting have to be observable by non-technical people.


3. Uniformity of technology cannot provide uniformity of integrity because you can have different election insiders or technicians falsifying the votes or tallies in different jurisdictions.


4. Democracy cannot survive an election system that requires "trust" in unobserved computerized vote-recording or vote-counting, or trust in any aspect of computer technology.



Our governmental officials love to ask computer scientists about computerized voting and vote-tabulating systems. Our media love to interview computer scientists to talk about election integrity and the use of these computerized systems. So there is cultural pressure to forget what elections are about -- votes recorded and counted before appropriate non-technical observers.


We see the result of that pressure when we ask what to do if the computerized voting machine breaks down, and no one says that each machine must be packaged with enough paper emergency ballots so that everyone can vote whether the computer is working or not.


Everyone should be able to vote, whether a computer is working or not.


But we must not look at the voting experience in isolation, rather than in the context of the entire election.  We've seen provisional ballots, where voters had a warm and fuzzy experience on election day, but only eight percent of the ballots were counted.


I bring this up now because in my opinion, the only legitimate use of computers in voting is to assist voters with disabilities or non-English languages to mark their ballot “privately and independently,” as the Help America Vote Act says.  So what do these voters do if the assistive ballot-marking computer goes down? Their backup is to have people, human beings, assist them in marking their ballot.


There is a problem of arrogance or ignorance of technologists who have been asked to take over the American election system, to create computers that will persuade people to give up their right to demand to observe the election process and to become passively willing to turn over our elections to computers.


If you stand back and get a wider overview, I hope you will see what I have seen -- widespread concealment of the election process, forcing people to look for circumstantial evidence that something went wrong. There might have been fraud. We can't prove it. And we can't disprove it. That means that we no longer live in a democracy. The schoolyard bully has stolen our lunch money, but we can't prove that some of the quarters in his pocket used to be in our pocket.


Computer scientists should not participate in this theft. Computer scientists need to look at elections from a democracy point of view, and refuse to create systems that prevent non-technical people from observing effectively.


If the system requires trust, it's on the wrong track.


My preferences in voting technology are:


1. Mechanical lever machines. They are the hardest technology to tamper with. They were made to last 150 years with normal maintenance, and new parts are available. Voters with disabilities or non-English languages who cannot or choose not to use the lever machines would have to use accessible ballot-marking machines. If our mechanical lever machines are broken or in bad repair, that is the result of a political decision not to maintain them.


2. Paper ballots marked by hand with precinct-count optical scanners to alert voters to errors on the ballot before it is cast, and accessible ballot-marking machines for voters with disabilities or non-English languages. Paper ballots properly handled and observed make for the most accurate elections, such as in national elections in Canada.


3. Electronic voting systems promise to be the most trouble-prone because Boards of Elections don't have the staff, expertise or resources to manage secure computer systems. Around the country we see elections being run by vendor technicians, while election professionals and observers are clueless about what the technicians or computers are doing. Obviously this is not conducive to election integrity.