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Did Your Vote Really Count?

Until its conclusion at the end of July, I was entertained by the Texas primary runoff elections. I have never seen so much mud slung in one election. I guess it replaces the other stuff politicians are famous for slinging, especially down here. However, I have no idea if my vote counted. It’s not the usual complaint that with so many voters how can my single ballot matter. No, it’s a 21st century complaint that the software in the ballot-scanning machine started glitching, and I have no idea if it ever registered my vote. Software quality is the new ‘hanging chad’.

The poor election official was trying to fix the scanner when it reported “ballot rejected” after scanning the ballot before mine. Problem was, officials at the county elections office said they had a record of the ballot coming through and being tallied correctly. The machine got so bollixed up that it refused to accept my ballot for scanning. I left the precinct hall with panicked election volunteers on the phone, the scanning machine disassembled, and a line of voters wondering if they were witnessing a digital rebirth of the honored Texas tradition of adding deceased citizens to the roles of qualified voters. This mess would be funny if the founding principles of democracy were not at stake. Self-determination, one person one vote, no taxation without representation, vote for the mudslinger of your choice — these are our heritage! Maybe these cherished ideas are about to be replaced with “Step right up and take your chance at electing the next US Senator from Texas! Yessiree, you have a 3 in 5 chance of having your vote count in determining the future of our country. These are the best odds offered by voting machines at any of the precincts in this county!”
Voting machines have suffered some embarrassing disasters. In Palm Beach, Florida last spring scanning machines mixed up vote tallies and declared the wrong candidates to be winners[1]. In a 2009 Florida race electronic voting machines lost 20,000 votes. Astonishingly, an election supervisor reported that 20,000 people showed up but chose not to vote. The manufacturer of the machines finally admitted publicly that the software managing the audit logs occasionally dropped votes and deleted the audit logs[2]. In addition, the machines were known to have security weaknesses[3]. Worse, the manufacturer’s CEO was a heavy supporter of some elected officials and used his influence to have them disqualify his competitors’ machines[4].
In 2010, 10% of Cuyahoga County, Ohio’s election machines failed pre-election tests by freezing when during tests to ensure the optical scanners were reading the ballots correctly[5]. It appears this bug migrated to Texas, so I assume we have a national epidemic. A disturbing list of these problems was compiled by[6]. At least Texas appears to have reasonable procedures for identifying and managing these electronic problems although they could use improvement according to the Verified Voting Foundation[7]. Maybe my vote actually counted, but who can know.
Flawed election software is not limited to the US. In Canada many qualified voters were not included on electronic registrations lists, even when they had indicated their desire to be included electronically[8]. Down under in Togo, database software was feared to be producing inaccurate voter registrations lists[9]. Democracy is under assault from flawed software across the globe.
The quality of election software has received only a fraction of the national attention focused on such global threats as ‘hanging chad’. Votes cast by deceased Texans have long been more of a joke than a focus of legislative concern. Under the US’s federal system, responsibility for conducting elections has been remanded to the states. Yet the stakes to a federated democracy are too high to allow poor software engineering to undermine the integrity of elections. Controlling the quality of software used in national elections needs determined attention from the US Congress. Is there a greater threat to democracy than a citizenry that loses trust in the reliability and security of the voting process?
1. CBS Miami.

2. Angela Gunn. 

3. Paul Miller. 

4. Julie Carr Smyth.



7. Verified Voting Foundation. Counting votes 2012: a state by state look at voting technology preparedness. 

8. Nina Comeron. 


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