Voting: February 2008 Archives


February 10, 2008

Watching the election on Super Tuesday it was interesting to see the enormous gap between Clinton and Obama at the beginning of the night and watching it narrow as more results were counted. Given that these early returns showed high percentages for Edwards, who ended at 4.1%, I speculate that they reflected early vote-by-mail/absentee votes. This matches up with pundit predictions that the early votes (pre-Obama surge) would be substantially more for Clinton.

Oregon already conducts all their elections by mail and according to Wikipedia, all but two of Washington state's counties are vote-by-mail. It's also one not uncommon reaction to concerns about the security of electronic voting systems (I'm not saying it's a good reaction.) As we're seeing here, one interesting impact of vote-by-mail is that it significantly affects the election timeline in two ways:

  • It increases latency because people need to decide on how they're going to vote well in advance of the election (even if there's a way to retract your ballot, it seems doubtful that most people will do so unless conditions really change.)
  • It decreases the temporal coherency of the election. In a standard election, everyone votes on the same day, but in vote-by-mail, people submit their ballots over the days and weeks before.

This seems like a small change, but I'd expect it to really modify required electoral strategies. A last minute attack ad is a lot less effective if people have already voted, and if there's no distinct election day, then it's hard to know when to time your ad buys/media events, etc. In general, it seems like a mass transition to vote-by-mail would greatly increase electoral intertia. Whether that's a good or bad thing depends on you're the frontrunner.

Obviously, this is pretty handwavy. If any EG readers know of some more formal analysis of, please let me know.


February 7, 2008

There's turning out to be a problem with LA County's optical scan voting system. This is an interaction between California's open primary and optical scan balloting. The backstory here is that California's Democratic and American Independent primaries allows voting by "decline-to-state" voters, but they need to fill in a bubble on the ballot to indicate which primary they want to vote in.(sample ballot here).

LA County uses a system called InkaVote Plus, made by ES&S. This isn't one of the systems we worked on in the TTBR. What it is is a centrally counted optical scan with a local checker. The way that this works is that the voters vote on paper ballots which are then checked by a local checking machine, called the precinct ballot reader (PBR). If there is something wrong, it spits the ballot out with some sort of warning (it's hard to tell from the video how good the warnings are). If the ballot checks, it drops into the ballot box. At the end of the election, the ballots get shipped back to county central, where they're counted in central optical scanners.

The nice thing about this design is that it's fairly resistant to technical attacks on the computerized part of the system—all the authoritative counting is done in scanner where access can be restricted to state employees. But because there is checking at the polling place, in principle you can catch voter errors. What's interesting is that it apparently didn't catch them here. It's possible that there are areas that aren't using the ballot check feature, but more likely the PBRs are only programmed to detect overvotes, not undervotes, and this just looks like a particularly egregious undervote.

The thing that I don't quite get here is that reading the coverage it sounds like decline-to-states and Democrats (or AIs) get the same blank ballot, so how does the central scanner know whether you're a registered Democrat or night (registered Democrats don't need to fill in the bubble)? Do they go in different bin or is there some other mark that indicates that they are decline-to-state voters or what?

UPDATE: Fixed link to sample ballot. Thanks to Steve Bellovin for pointing this out.