Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Certified state election results now online

California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson this week released the certified Statement of Vote for the November 7, 2006 election. This report contains the final vote counts for all statewide, legislative and congressional contests and statewide ballot propositions. It also reports each county's voter registration and participation numbers.

However, some data that's not included in the most recent Statement of Vote is the number of "votes not cast" in each of the contests. While this data is not required by law to be included, it has traditionally been featured in the Statement of Vote and can be a useful tool in assessing the reliability of different voting systems. In fact, it was the "votes not cast" rate that was used by the ACLU to argue for the decertification of punch card voting systems several years ago.

According to the Secretary of State's news release announcing the Statement of Vote, 56.2 percent of the state's registered voters, or approximately 8.9 million Californians, cast ballots in the November 7 election. 41.5 percent of those who participated voted absentee, down from the 46.9 percent absentee voting rate in the June 2006 primary. Among eligible voters, the participation rate in November was 39.3 percent. To get a historical perspective on California's turnout rates, take a look at this section of the Statement of Vote.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Election certification deadline looms

Today is the deadline for counties to certify their results from the November 7 election. As this recent article in the Riverside Press-Enterprise by Jim Miller and Michelle DeArmond explains, the certification process is taking longer in some counties because of the increase in provisional and absentee voting. Excerpts are below.


By the close of business Tuesday, the count should be over.

For almost four weeks, election workers throughout the state have been processing the estimated 8.7 million ballots cast Nov. 7, including hundreds of thousands of absentee and provisional ballots that swamped counties on or just before Election Day.

Come 2008 and beyond, counting votes will get only more complicated, experts say. Elections nationwide have become a thicket of varied ballot types, new rules and some public skepticism about the process.

"It's taking longer than it used to, and that's a trend," said Steve Weir, Contra Costa County's registrar of voters and president of the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials.

In California, the availability of touch-screen voting in 22 of the state's 58 counties -- including Riverside and San Bernardino -- feeds an expectation of quick results after the polls close. Counties, though, also have to process sacks of late-arriving paper absentee and provisional ballots.

Some California election offices effectively held three Nov. 7 elections: pre-election voting, Election Day voting and absentee voting.

"The job of running our elections has become increasingly complex," said Ray Martinez, former commissioner of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. "My concern ... is voter confidence. We've had a serious erosion in the trust that people have in the integrity of election outcomes."

Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, said critics should be concerned by things besides how long it takes to count ballots.

"What does concern me greatly is that there were sporadic problems throughout the state with voting equipment, and that was not isolated to Riverside County," she said. "I think that the registrars and the poll workers are, on the whole, in over their heads with the voting equipment and the procedures and the requirements that have been placed on them. We need to get a handle on that process."

Absentee voting used to be the exception. In the November 1978 election, 7.1 million ballots were cast statewide, but only 314,000 were absentee ballots.
Earlier that year, though, lawmakers had relaxed the rules to let anyone request an absentee ballot.

In 2002, absentee voting became even easier. A law took effect that allows people sign up to be permanent absentee voters. Before then, a permanent absentee voter had to have certain medical conditions.


People signed up in droves. Almost 4 million people were registered as permanent absentee voters before last month's election, a 16-fold increase from six years ago.

Election offices statewide had about 2.3 million completed ballots in hand before Election Day. Many more arrived in the mail or were dropped off at polling places on Election Day.

In addition to late-arriving absentee votes, counties received thousands of provisional ballots cast by people whose names were not on the precinct lists because they were in the wrong precinct, had failed to reregister at a new address or for other reasons.

Both sets of ballots created extra work for election officials. Each ballot has to be checked to ensure that it had come from an eligible voter. Workers have to verify that the voter didn't also vote at a polling place.

"Those provisional ballots can take hours to check -- each," said Ernest Hawkins of the Election Center, a Texas nonprofit that focuses on improving the voting process.


Requiring postmarks on absentee ballots poses problems. Some postmarks are hard to read. Also, ballots can be postmarked by the deadline but not arrive until after the election. That increases the risk of fraud.

Ballots could be shortened significantly if cities, counties, school boards and other agencies held their elections separate from congressional and state voting. But that would decrease voter turnout.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Security Of Electronic Voting Is Condemned -

Today's Washington Post features this article by Cameron Barr regarding draft recommendations issued this week by NIST (the National Institute of Standards and Technology) that condemn paperless electronic voting systems because they do not allow election officials to recount ballots independently from a voting machine's software.

If the recommendation is adopted it will be part of the next version of the federal voting system standards. The sad irony here is, that if NIST had been authorized to immediately begin its oversight of the federal standards after HAVA was enacted in October 2002, such a recommendation could have come years sooner, and before so much money had been unwisely spent on paperless electronic voting machines. Regardless, the draft recommendation may provide incentives to more states that have implemented paperless e-voting to retrofit the machines with voter-verified paper audit trail printers, or move to a paper-based voting system.

Exceprts from the Washington Post article are featured below.


Paperless electronic voting machines used throughout the Washington region and much of the country "cannot be made secure," according to draft recommendations issued this week by a federal agency that advises the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

The assessment by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, one of the government's premier research centers, is the most sweeping condemnation of such voting systems by a federal agency.

In a report hailed by critics of electronic voting, NIST said that voting systems should allow election officials to recount ballots independently from a voting machine's software. The recommendations endorse "optical-scan" systems in which voters mark paper ballots that are read by a computer and electronic systems that print a paper summary of each ballot, which voters review and elections officials save for recounts.


NIST's recommendations are to be debated next week before the Technical Guidelines Development Committee, charged by Congress to develop standards for voting systems. To become effective, NIST's recommendations must then be adopted by the Election Assistance Commission, which was created by Congress to promote changes in election systems after the 2000 debacle in Florida.

If the commission agrees with NIST, the practical impact may not be felt until 2009 or 2010, the soonest that new standards would be implemented. The standards that the Election Assistance Commission will adopt are voluntary, but most states require election officials to deploy voting systems that meet national or federal criteria.


NIST says in its report that the lack of a paper trail for each vote "is one of the main reasons behind continued questions about voting system security and diminished public confidence in elections." The report repeats the contention of the computer security community that "a single programmer could 'rig' a major election."


Computer scientists and others have said that the security of electronic voting systems cannot be guaranteed and that election officials should adopt systems that produce a paper record of each vote in case of a recount. The NIST report embraces that critique, introducing the concept of "software independence" in voting systems.

NIST says that voting systems should not rely on a machine's software to provide a record of the votes cast. Some electronic voting system manufacturers have introduced models that include printers to produce a separate record of each vote -- and that can be verified by a voter before leaving the machine -- but such paper trails have had their own problems.


"Why are we doing this at all? is the question people are asking," said Warren Stewart, policy director of VoteTrustUSA, a group critical of electronic voting systems. "We have a perfectly good system -- the paper-ballot optical-scan system."