This guest article is a group effort of the 15-year-old non-partisan “Whatcom Fair Voting” group. Comments to the article can be addressed to Marian Beddill.
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Trustworthy elections require a voting system with solid integrity, protected from tampering or corruption of the tallies of votes cast. This review does not deal with WHO can cast a ballot (registration issues, etc.) – which is a valid concern. This analysis starts at the point where a paper ballot is received in the elections system from a drop-box or postal delivery to the auditor’s office. Whatcom County in Washington state has a vote counting system that meets a strongly procedural, high integrity standard of checks and balances.
We have official “observers,” usually representing the political parties and other distinct interest groups like the League of Women Voters, but anyone may take a brief training by the elections staff, sign an oath to do the task, and be permitted to “observe.” These observers are allowed in the rooms where any of the ballot and vote management activities are taking place. They are not allowed to touch any materials and may only ask questions of a supervisor.
The general sequential process begins when the ballots are mailed to voters. The voter marks their paper ballot with an inked line in the read-area for their intended votes, puts it into the secrecy envelope, and puts the secrecy envelope containing the ballot into a slightly larger outer envelope. The voter signs his or her name on the back flap of the outer envelope. They then either mail the ballot or deposit it in a drop-box at one of the locations established and advertised by the auditor’s office.
Two staff members from the auditor’s office regularly gather the envelopes containing the ballots from the official drop-boxes and the U.S. Post Office. Once in the office, they are placed in random batches of about a hundred ballots and each batch is put into a large plastic tray. Each tray has a unique identification number that is noted on a log-sheet created for each batch. The trays and ballots - pictured above - are then stored in a safe.
The auditor’s office has a database with a copy of every voter’s signature. Before the ballots are removed from their return-envelopes, they are processed by people trained to compare the signature on the still-sealed outer envelope against the signature on record. For the purposes of this discussion of integrity, we now know that the signature has been visually verified and declared to be from a registered voter. This is registered in the database so only one ballot from that voter will be processed.
In order to process the ballots, they need to be removed from the outer and secrecy envelopes and separated. At this point, the ballot cannot be identified as to which voter cast it.
To pre-determine that the ballots are readable by the scanners, every ballot is visually inspected and reviewed by staffers. Any marks other than a proper vote requires the ballot to be duplicated by two staff members, one marking, the other checking. Log sheets are kept and signed by both staff members, and the voter-marked ballots are moved to a different storage place. Both log-sheets are numbered for cross-referencing so at any time the voter-marked ballots may be retrieved for verification.
Washington state law requires effort be made to count the vote according to “voter intent,” and there are 24 different “voter intent” scenarios which are recognized as guides for the staff. So, there is an initial visual inspection of every ballot and where irregular marks are seen, the ballot is duplicated following that guide. In instances where a voter’s intent cannot be determined, a duplicate ballot is made, leaving out that item. The same will happen if the computer-scanner spots an irregularity – the ballot is removed and a duplicate made and re-inserted in the process.
BATCHES of BALLOTS
Ballots and their digital twins are handled and stored in “batches,” arbitrary bunches of about 100 ballots placed and managed together. Several batches may be placed in a storage box and a unique number is assigned to each batch and box. All activities for managing the ballots are registered in a logging-system. If ballots are withdrawn from a batch for some kind of verification, they are re-registered in a new batch and the record of the batch they were taken from is edited to show the reduced count. Every movement is checked by staff and a supervisor, and signed by each. The boxed batches are kept in a secured room except when being processed.
SECURITY of the COMPUTERS
Ah! The processing!
The computer system is in a locked and secure room. The industrial-quality, high-speed scanners make and save a digital copy of the votes that were marked on the paper ballot by the voter. They are directly connected to the processing computers, and it takes only seconds to read a batch.
At predetermined and announced times, so that observers may be present, the ballots in batches are ‘read’ into the computer system by a high-speed scanner, one batch at a time. The batch numbers are registered on the log sheets of each scanner. (see scanner photo below article)
For security, the scanners and computers that read the ballots, count the votes and store that information, have NO communication connection to the outside world. Data cannot be sent directly to or from these computers and they have features that would block any attempt to send/receive information through electric power lines. Programs are loaded onto the computers from certified copies on digital media.
All vote-total digital output from these computers is transferred out ONLY by manual transport of a removable external disc drive. The data is copied onto such a disc, which is carried by two people, for integrity, to an administrative room to be incorporated into the permanent storage systems. It’s called a “sneaker-net,” referring to their shoes. For verification, those vote totals are also printed in both locations, the computer room before they go out and again in the administrative office, so there can be a double-check. Then the results will be made ready to go public. But wait; there is another step!
AUDITS and OBSERVERS
The computerized results are subjected to a final inspection - a manual double-check/mini-audit.
A prime function of the observers is to randomly select batches for integrity verification. While the paper-ballot batches are being scan-read by the computer system, the observers designate random batches to be verified by a hand-count. Those batches are sealed in special boxes, tagged, registered, and stored in a separate place. The double-check hand-count usually takes place the following morning and any observers may be present.
The randomly selected batches of paper ballots are taken to a room, opened by staff and selected races are hand-counted; they are counted a second time by another team. If the two hand counts agree, the computerized counts, which were printed but not disclosed, are announced for the first time. This basic, independent double check allows everyone to know whether the computer-count numbers match the hand-counts – or are different.
If the vote-tally numbers differ between the computer-count and the hand-count, an investigation is started right then, in the same room. The paper ballots are scrutinized for any irregularity that may have been understood one way by the computer system and another way by the staff. The most common reason for a difference has been that a pen-mark by the voter on a paper ballot wasn’t dark enough – which led the staff to see it as “a vote,” but the more-sensitive computer-system to call it “a non-vote – a blank.”
When managers and staff find such a ballot, it is removed from the batch. Once a substitute ballot has been duplicated to coincide with the presumed voter-intent, it will be re-inserted into the batch. That “repaired” batch is then again run through the scanner/computer system, and the new results are brought to the review team while public observers are still there. Over about a dozen years, almost without exception, the computer tally including the properly marked vote has matched the hand count first found by the verify-staff. No errors, and no corruption.
The batches of paper ballots are then archived, under a management system of coded identification of each batch.
COMPUTERS and SOFTWARE
Computer software is a fundamental part of the system and the programs could be subject to corruption. Federal and state law requires that all such systems be reviewed and certified as reliable and free of features that could corrupt the reported vote-tallies. Our system in Whatcom County met that certification requirement when it was purchased.
But all such systems are subject to eventual failure so there must be new, certified management programs to replace them. We believe any new equipment, both hardware and software, MUST be carefully reviewed and found reliable – i.e. certified.
Unfortunately, the federal office tasked with doing this certification had nearly drifted out of existence. It has recently been re-activated and new programs are now beginning to obtain federal certification. Hopefully, they will be available to states and counties in the near future.
But Washington state’s certification process is still idle. The public needs to push to re-start our efforts to adequately review new computer systems. Producing Certification Reports on them will allow us to begin acquiring them. Certification MUST be done before our “old” systems begin to fail, which some experts suggest will be within the next three years.
INSIST on HAND COUNTABLE PAPER BALLOTS
In order to retain the integrity of our voting system, votes must be delivered to the elections office marked on paper ballots by the voters. We currently have the ability to use those paper ballots to do hand-counts to double-check the machine counts. The paper ballot is physical, thus verifiable, whereas electronic records are not. Other than a few exceptions for special cases such as military voters overseas, or voters who are blind or have other disabilities, we must say no to electronic/digital voting. No touchscreen voting. No internet voting. All those systems can be hacked and corrupted. With the process steps outlined above, we can have confidence that our votes are correctly counted and reported.
Well, yes. There are the questions of who may have a ballot and who will mark it. But those are for another report.
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This is a public education article by Whatcom Fair Voting, which has been in operation for over a decade.
Whatcom Fair Voting (WFV) is a non-partisan ad-hoc grassroots citizen’s group working to promote electoral process integrity by:
- Researching voting improvements
- Encouraging full citizen participation
- Informing the public and elected officials on voting issues
- Supporting safeguards to ensure fair & accurate voting, accountability & process transparency
- Monitoring elections legislation