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Ensuring Valid Vote Counts

   --George Edwards and Tom Peterson


Josef Stalin:  “It’s completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this — who will count the votes, and how.”


Vote counting in small groups
Vote counting involving many voting places using paper ballots

Vote counting involving many voting places using voting machines

Clark County Nevada Vote Counting Security and Verification Procedures


Number one: vote counting fraud exists. It is implemented in many ways and must be dealt with to protect the electoral process. The Chicago crowd is known for counting votes in cemeteries and holding up “vote counts” until it sees how many are needed to elect its favored candidate or candidates.


Vote counting in small groups

Ensuring a valid vote count in small groups requires first that the ballots are placed in receptacles viewable by all and that the ballots are cast by qualified voters also viewable by all. Then the ballot box is visibly made available to a group of, if possible disinterested vote counters—ideally including those supporting opposing candidates. Then the vote counters each independently count the votes and compare their individual totals to ensure that all agree before the final tally is reported. If the ballots are to be counted elsewhere a similarly constituted group ensures that the proper ballot boxes are delivered to the final vote counters.


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Vote counting involving many voting places using paper ballots

Ensuring a valid vote count when there are many voting places involved requires fully trustworthy, trained and responsible individual vote takers to carefully verify each voter’s identification and qualification to vote in the particular precinct and record their verification in ink. The fully trustworthy, trained and responsible individual precinct workers must also ensure that only those “signed in” deposit their votes in the proper ballot locations. The same considerations as for small groups must then be taken as to who counts the votes on site as well as the same precautions as to the chain of custody if the counting of the votes is to be done off-site by carefully chosen fully trustworthy, trained and responsible individual vote counters and vote talliers.  Finally the same precautions are necessary for the chain of custody and choice of individuals in the final accumulation and reporting of vote tallies for overall election results. Vote counts should be recorded at each precinct to check against the counts used in summarizing tallies in other location.


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Vote counting involving many voting places using voting machines

Ensuring a valid vote count when there are many voting places involved requires fully trustworthy, trained and responsible individual vote takers to carefully verify each voter’s identification and qualification to vote in the particular precinct and record their verification in ink. The fully trustworthy, trained and responsible individual precinct workers must also ensure that only those “signed in” use the voting machines to vote. Thereafter, whenever human involvement can be avoided, a carefully protected and maintained voting machine system can automatically and accurately do the subsequent vote counting and reporting for an entire election.


Human involvement is necessary to maintain the machines to operate and continue to operate as they should. Test ballot samples need to be prepared and available to frequently test the proper vote counting operation by machines at the precinct level and other levels in the process. Real data vote counts should be automatically recorded at each precinct level to check against the counts used in summarizing tallies in other locations. Maintaining an automatic print out or digital storage of each ballot cast as verified by the individual voter would serve as a further verification of proper data being used in the process. Copies of the printouts or digital storage devices should be stored off-site to protect against loss by accident, fire, flood, hurricane, etc.


Concerns have been raised as to the ease of modifying source code to produce wrong counting results. This is true. The counting software and the testing software have to be protected against human alteration. One approach would be to provide it to voting places on carefully guarded read only CDs to be used in place of any computer storage-- such as CDs used for some Unix distributions, e.g. Knoppix. In any cases, shipping, storage and protection of software on memory devices must be carefully protected. Sure, the producers of the software and storage of it on the distributed devices could still beat the system. All that can be said here is that these people have to be as carefully screened as poll takers. There are fewer of them required and so more readily amenable to careful selection.


The votes themselves are subject to false inputs by hacking. Again access to humans must be limited as much as possible, e.g. by not using the Internet in the system, any other networking at all or any network not carefully protected against hacker intrusion. That said,  massive data-garbage in with the resultant garbage out is possible if anyone gains access to the virtual ballot input data stream--think cyber attacks.  An automated answer at a voting place could be to require digital keys [e.g. a “swiped” credit card] for access only available at the voting place or tied to individual identities--although the latter could be used to destroy the secrecy of individual votes unless the information is automatically deleted once used. Think of keys to a car. Cars can be hot-wired. A human answer to some of this lies in honest diligent poll workers preventing anyone but thoroughly checked-out voters getting access to voting machines.


I see that the S.C. poll managers handbook----http://www.scvotes.org/files/PMHandbook/SEC%20MNL%201100-201010%20Poll%20Managers%20Handbook.pdf  -- says with regard to voting machine totals after voting is completed—“The managers shall canvass and announce the results as shown on the totals tape. Three managers must sign the totals tapes, posting one copy in a conspicuous location at the polling place, and return the other totals tape with other election supplies.” If I understand this correctly, it means that there is a local record of the total votes recorded on each machine that can be used to help verify remote vote counting total summaries.


South Carolina may already have additional provisions in place that it is reluctant to publicize for fear of revealing possible holes to hackers.


Nothing is absolutely secure and there are always people who try to cheat at every step of the way. However, the concern with voting machines per se, I believe is largely because so much happens behind the scenes. Obviously on-line banking, credit cards etc. have effectively resolved many potential fraud problems. We depend on their reliability.


All in all, the unavoidable massive use of humans in wide-spread paper balloting systems puts it at a disadvantage against the more stringent non-human-intervention control available in automated digital systems. The concern may be simply that the automated processes are not directly visible. That is precisely why separate storage backups for vote count verification and automated testing provisions are so important. With them, like a locked car, successful vote counting fraud is at the least much more difficult than with a hand vote counting system.


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Clark County Nevada Vote Counting Security and Verification Procedures

The desirability of having hard copy and electronic data backup both on-site and off-site was discussed above. Having such as parallel simultaneously recording hard drives, other backup equipment and an uninterruptible power supply (UPS), always desirable in any system using computer equipment, is especially important in the case of voting machines because of the extreme public importance of not losing votes and having uninterrupted service on voting days.


The following voting-machine-specific security measures are copied and pasted from those used in Clark County Nevada (Las Vegas's county) where stringent gambling security is regularly instituted.

·         The machines are stored in a secure environment in which access is limited and monitored by cameras, motion sensors, and various other sensor and personnel monitoring systems.

·         The machines are delivered to the polling locations in a manner that prevents anyone from tampering with them without it being immediately evident to election poll workers.

·         Finally, when the election is over, all results are audited. The number of individuals who signed precinct registers is matched with the number of ballots cast, and the electronically recorded results are matched with the results verified by the voters on the paper printouts.


Further comments by Tom Peterson, Clark County Nevada Polling Place Team follow:

  “In Clark County, the machines we use record an electronic copy of both your ballot prior to casting it and after casting it as well as paper copies. The electronic copy is recorded on a secure card (I'm not sure what they're called, but I recognize the technology from the military) in each voting machine and the paper copy is on a continuous roll in a secure print container, also attached to the machine. Before your ballot is cast, the touch screen displays your final ballot on one or more pages (depending on the number of questions - during the last presidential election, we also had something like twelve questions so between all the local, state and national races and the questions, the ballot was displayed on two pages, on the roughly 18x24 screen) and the paper record prints out your ballot at the same time. Then you are asked if that is the ballot you want cast, giving you one more opportunity to change anything, then you touch the screen to confirm this is the ballot to cast, another screen comes up and you then have to touch the screen once more to actually cast the ballot. That ballot is also printed, so that in the end, there are a minimum of four copies of the ballot, two of the ballot to be cast (one electronic and one paper) and two of the ballot actually cast (one electronic and one paper). Further, those ballots only exist on that machine so the internet or cabling never comes into play. Each machine has an emergency backup battery that will last six hours, and should the power go out, we are required to close the polls.

   “In my opinion, the entire system is very secure. The effort that would be needed to corrupt the system is enormous. Keep in mind that whenever more than one person has to keep a secret, it will eventually get out. So just imagine the efforts to keep tampered machines secret.

   “We've had several people charge that there was vote tampering, but none got any further than the initial charge. The biggest weaknesses are voters' inability to use a touch screen machine and external conditions like bussed in voters - where I think the requirement to show proof of eligibility to vote is critical and the biggest weak link in Nevada.”


 Also see:

Voting System and Fraud Prevention Tradeoffs,

Voting System Recommendations


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