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National Issues

Pesky Details with Getting a Voting System Correct PDF  | Print |  Email
By Dan Wallach, Rice University   
March 01, 2008
This article was posted at Ed Felten's Blog and is reposted here with permission of the author.

Today was the last day of early voting in Texas’s primary election. Historically, I have never voted in a primary election. I’ve never felt I identified enough with a particular political party to want to have a say in selecting their candidates. Once I started working on voting security, I discovered that this also allowed me to make a legitimate claim to being “non-partisan.” (While some election officials, political scientists, and others who you might perhaps prefer to be non-partisan do have explicit partisan views, many more make a point of similarly obscuring their partisan preferences like I do.)

In Texas, you are not required to register with a party in order to vote in their primary. Instead, you just show up and ask for their primary ballot. In the big city of Houston, any registered voter can go to any of 35 early voting locations over the two weeks of early voting. Alternately, they may vote in their home, local precinct (there are almost a thousand of these) on the day of the election. There have been stories of long lines over the past two weeks. My wife wanted to vote, but procrastinating, we went on the final night to a gigantic supermarket near campus. Arriving at 5:50pm or so, she didn’t reach the head of the queue until 8pm. Meanwhile, I took care of our daughter and tried to figure out the causes of the queue.

There were maybe twenty electronic voting machines, consistently operating at between 50-70% utilization (i.e., as many as half of the voting machines were unused at any given time). Yet the queue was huge. How could this be? Turns out there were four people at the desk in front dealing with the sign-in procedure. In a traditional, local precinct, this is nothing fancier than flipping open a paper printout to the page with your name. You sign next to it, and then you go vote. Simple as can be. Early voting is a different can of worms. They can’t feasibly keep a printout with over a million names of it in each of 35 early voting centers. That means they need computers. Our county’s computers had some kind of web interface that they could use to verify the voter’s registration. They then print a sticker with your name on it, you sign it, and it goes into a book. If a voter happens to present their voter registration card (my wife happened to have hers with her), the process is over in a hurry. Otherwise, things slow down, particularly if, say, your driver’s license doesn’t match up with the computer. “What was your previous address?” Unsurprisingly, the voter registration / sign-in table was the bottleneck. I’ve seen similar effects beforehand when voting early.

How could you solve this problem? You could have an explicit “fast path” for voters who match quickly versus a “slow path” with a secondary queue for more complicated voters. You can have more registration terminals. You could have roving helpers with PDAs and battery-powered printers that try to get further back into the queue and help voters reconcile themselves with their “true” identity. There’s no lack of creativity that’s been applied to solving this class of problems outside of the domain of election management.

Now, these voter registration systems are not subject to any of the verification and testing procedures that apply to the electronic voting machines themselves. Any vendor can sell pretty much anything and the state government doesn’t have much to say about it. That’s both good and bad. It’s clearly bad because any vetting process might have tried to consider these queueing issues and would have issued requirements on how to address the problem. On the flip side, one of the benefits of the lack of regulation is that the vendor(s) could ostensibly fix their software. Quickly.

To the extent there’s a moral to this story, it’s that the whole system matters. For the most part, we computer security folks have largely ignored voter registration as being somebody else’s problem. Maybe there’s a market for some crack programmer to crank out a superior solution in the time it took to read this blog post and get us out of the queue and into the voting booth.

(Sidebar: Turns out, the Texas Democratic Party has both a primary election and a caucus. Any voter who casts a vote in the primary is elgible to caucus with the party. The caucus locations are the same as the local polling places, with caucusing starting 15 minutes after the close of the polls. Expect stories about crowding, confusion, and chaos, particularly given the crowded, small precinct rooms and relatively few people with experience in the caucusing process. Wikipedia has some details about the complex process by which the state’s delegates are ultimately selected. There may or may not be lawsuits over the process as well.)
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