It’s probably not cool to say, but I am not sure about “Mayday.Us”

“We’re kickstarting a Super PAC big enough to make it possible to win a Congress committed to fundamental reform by 2016. We set fundraising goals and then crowdfund those goals.” 

Lofty goal but so vague I can’t tell which way is up!

I remember something that sounded similar, a few years ago: It was called Americans Elect. They had awesome goals, and they even got Thomas Friedman to endorse them. Like Lawrence Lessig. (See I don’t say “Larry” because we aren’t really on a first name basis 🙂 The problem is that Americans Elect failed miserably, and there was even some buzz that it was some kind of a front for less savory operators who I would not have supported if I had known them. I honestly don’t remember the details anymore but it did make me less willing to jump in an support positive but vague sounding causes.

So I am not ready to jump in with both feet into Mayday.Us.

 

What happened to Americans Elect?

Over the last year I mentioned “Americans Elect” several times: Americans Elect: Another Opinion, Field Of Dreams: Americans Elect, and Americans Elect – A viable third party?. Without rehashing or rereading my previous posts, basically, AE promised to get their candidate on the ballot in all 50 states by beginning the legal work really early, while driving an online process to select a candidate. This was their promise (from their own site)

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Their web site was very credible and well done. (I looked at it now, and it’s still nice, but they essentially concede that they failed without coming out and saying it.) They had Thomas Friedman talking about them, and I was kind of excited about it. But I became a little nervous about it when I saw a distinct conservative lean in the candidates that they were putting up, and very few names I had ever heard about. I wondered whether this was actually a highly sophisticated operation that wasn’t really what they were trying to appear to be.

Well it’s been a while since I had heard of Americans Elect but I fully expected them to carry through on their mission and promised. But I just looked at the ‘sample ballot” for my town, and Americans Elect actually are nowhere to be found.

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I wonder what happened to them!

Vote Buying measures and countermeasures

An interesting question, and an expert answer from a friend of mine. If you are interested in elections and voting and how they can and cannot be bought, you might find this intriguing. By the way, this scheme would never work in the US as we have many mechanisms that would prevent that, but these might apply in other countries that are not as sophisticated. 

Scenario:

Say a bad guy made an offer secretly to the population that he would give each voter $100 for a vote cast for himself. Say they are using optical scan ballots. Say that cell phone cameras are easily snuck into the polling booth.

If you were the bad guy, what proof would you ask for so that people couldn’t trick you and collect lots of $100 for votes that they really didn’t cast. And if you were the government or an activist, what would you tell people about how to trick the bad guy and collect a bunch of $100 bills?:

Here’s the analysis:

Before the Australian ballot, it was easy! Anybody can print a ballot, lots of straight party ballots printed. You go to your party boss in your polling place, he gives you a ballot, you put in the box, simple. When the party bosses were excluded, well, you had to get your ballot from him, and minions could observe you not getting a different. With some slight of hand you could trick them, but still very effective b/c most people won’t attempt the slight of hand under threat of kneecapping. The almost as soon as Australian ballot was adopted (you might get a blank ballot from a government official in the polling place and mark it in the polling place), chain voting was invented.

Now, today, chain voting is too pesky and low throughput, how about we use the voter’s digital camera in the polling booth! The can take a picture of the ballot that they marked as instructed by the boss. You show the boss a picture on your camera, he gives you money and/or spares your kneecaps. But wait! The digital photo can be faked? Hmmm.

I think that is the stage you’ve set. There are two main questions. What methods can the boss put in place to increase the difficulty of faked photos? What measures can election officials take to make it more difficult for real photos to be produced?

A separate question, new to me: if you were the government or an activist, what would you tell people about how to trick the bad guy and collect a bunch of $100 bills? You bear in mind that it is not just money. The deal might be this: you show me you voted right and I’ll give you money; you don’t show me, and my goons bust your kneecaps.

Well, if I were the gov’t, I would be forbidding the use of cameras or cellphones or any kind of recording device in polling places, rather than telling people it is OK. Allowing recording devices in the voting booth is creating the opportunity for vote intimidation. You never want that.

So let me go back to the two main questions. I would suggest to election officials that ballot marking be done in three sided carrels made of translucent plastic that will mask a view of the ballot being marked, but allow a view of the use of recording devices.

There would need to be lots of training both of voters — we really don’t want you to using recording devices! — and poll workers to intervene by asking a voter to please mark a ballot again, because this one you marked and then did some weird stuff in the carrel that looked like taking a photo.

The boss has a harder time. Clearly a photo of a properly marked ballot won’t do, b/c anybody can make one of those. The photo would need to include something that showed the ballot and me, together. So probably it should include my hand as something that should be unique and distinguishing. Maybe the boss could stamp my wrist with a unique number, in ink that takes days to wear off. Even so, I could prepare a photo combining a properly marked ballot, and my hand, but not the ballot that I cast! If pre-printed ballots are freely available, then I can prepare a photo that the boss expects, but still vote a real secret ballot in the polling place. I could even make a fake picture in the voting booth, using a pre-made ballot, but then marking a real blank ballot and casting that. From there you are in a spy vs spy sort of games with more boss requirements on the photo, making it more difficult to fake, but also more difficult get away with in the real voting booth.

[ELECTIONS] Continuing debate on hand vs. machine counting

Just from today’s New York Times:

“Voters in New York State use a vote-scanning system that can tally votes swiftly and, in most cases, correctly. Not New York City. The city’s Board of Elections uses a creaky system of counting by hand that is prone to embarrassing errors on election night.” (from Why Can’t NYC Count Votes?)

Americans Elect: Another Opinion

A month or two ago I read an article by Thomas Friedman introducing Americans Elect, an innovative concept for bringing a third major presidential candidate to the table for this year’s Presidential contest. I liked it so much I wrote about in on my blog.

So it is with great interest that I came across this recent article by Gail Collins totally hating the Americans Elect concept:

“But it’s too dangerous. History suggests that this election could be decided by a small number of votes in a few closely contested states. You do not want it to turn on a bunch of citizens who decide to express their purity of heart by tossing a vote to Fred Website.

Plus, the whole Americans Elect concept is delusional, in a deeply flattering way: We the people are good and pure, and if only we were allowed to just pick the best person, everything else would fall into place. And, of course, the best person cannot be the choice of one of the parties, since the parties are … the problem. (from Time to Elect the Worst Idea)

Wow. I admit that a little while ago I started having misgivings about Americans Elect. The reason was that I could see no candidates there that I knew or liked. And those that were doing well seemed very conservative. It got me wondering whether I had been tricked into donating my $25 to Republican or Tea Party front. I have no evidence of that, but for sure my enthusiasm has dropped quite a bit.

Elections: Hand counts are NOT the gold standard

There is always a good deal of controversy surrounding elections and in particular, whether an election is ‘fair’ or not. As I have been working on a project with the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation I’ve been exposed to this from time to time.

This controversy arises in many different guises. There is a group that is absolutely against using computers in any way shape or form to run elections. Given that we need to count the votes of some 200 Million people in this country alone, it seems far fetched to try to do that without a computer involved anywhere.

Others say that the act of looking at a ballot and determining the votes cast should only done by people, working in well organized teams with carefully designed procedures. They refer to this as the ‘gold standard’ of counting, the only way to be really sure that we are counting votes correctly.

That is not quite as far fetched. But also not self evident. Here comes a study that tries to rigorously measure the error rates of hand counted ballots. They say:

‘”It is probably impossible to completely eliminate errors in hand counting of ballots,” Byrne said. “However, there are new auditing methods that capitalize on advanced statistical procedures that can help ensure that final election results better match what is actually on the ballots. It is important that we become aware of the limitations of current methods and develop alternative ways to improve the accuracy of election results.”‘ (from Rice University)

The bottom line result that they found was that “Hand counting of votes in post election audit or recount procedures can result in error rates of up to 2 percent.” You can easily recall recent elections that were decided by less than 2 percent, right?

Bruce Schneier (a highly respected cryptography and security expert) says:

“All voting systems have nonzero error rates. This doesn’t surprise technologists, but does surprise the general public. There’s a myth out there that elections are perfectly accurate, down to the single vote. They’re not. If the vote is within a few percentage points, they’re likely a statistical tie. (The problem, of course, is that elections must produce a single winner.)” (see Bruce Schneier’s Blog)

New Jersey election fraud? Or coverup? Or just human error?

Andrew Appel is one of the best known academics studying and commenting on elections and computer science and technology related to elections. He wrote a really interesting report, “New Jersey Elections Coverup“, going into great detail about a specific incident during the June 2011 New Jersey primary election where the reported outcome of a particular race was demonstrated to be incorrect.

It was a small election and so they could literally get affidavits from voters to prove this. Mr. Apple was hired as an expert (apparently he does a lot of this, which for me colors his words to some extent) to help investigate what might have happened. The report tells a compelling story.

If you are one of those who wonders whether election fraud happens or can easily happen, this report will interest you. It also adds weight to the conventional wisdom among security and computer experts a physical paper ballot, marked by the voter, and scanned by a computer is really the best and perhaps only way to ensure fair elections.

Americans Elect – A viable third party?

It’s unusual to see Thomas Friedman to throw his weight this thoroughly behind an outside organization:

“The goal of Americans Elect is to take a presidential nominating process now monopolized by the Republican and Democratic parties, which are beholden to their special interests, and blow it wide open — guaranteeing that a credible third choice, nominated independently, will not only be on the ballot in every state but be able to take part in every presidential debate and challenge both parties from the middle with the best ideas on how deal with the debt, education and jobs.” (from The New York TImes)

I am not sure this is for real, but it sure sounds interesting. I am signing up.

Why we need new election technology

I work at the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation, where we are creating new, modern, open source, and publicly owned  technology for operating all aspects of voting in the US.

By the way, do not assume this means ‘internet voting’ — it does not. There is a lot of old technology use to run elections today, a lot of it developed and sold (expensive) by for profit companies. And there’s a lot more to running an election than how a voter casts a vote. We aim to develop tools and technology that is made available for free to anyone who wants it.

It’s important and exciting work. I came across this bit as a small reminder of why we need it:

“Once the polls close, each of the digital scanners used at the city’s polling sites spews out a supermarketlike receipt. Election workers cut the paper strips and sort them by election district, since a polling place may serve more than one district. They then use a calculator to tally the results for each candidate, and the count is transcribed by hand onto “return of canvass” forms. They are given to police officers at the polling places, who take them to local precinct houses, where the numbers are entered in a computer and transmitted to the board and to The Associated Press — which distributes them to other news organizations.” (from Recount Finds 195,000 Voters Were Missed on Election Night)

 

How (not) to design a ballot

My head is full of democracy and elections these days. How come, you ask? Well for the last year or so I’ve been working for the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation, on elections technology. This month’s focus is generating ballots for two elections happening in November. So more than usual, I am dreaming in black and white forms. Anyway…

I came across a couple of instructive blog posts about the new non-lever voting that New York unveiled this month. Predictably, when dealing with humans, some people don’t like them. You can’t please them all, right? But really the objections raised here are quite legitimate.

If this important yet rather esoteric topic interests you, here are three good links: