Explaining voting machines to space aliens

When I see nutty behavior—things like toddlers in beauty pageants, a national system of employer-funded health insurance, or legalizing switchblade knives—I practice empathy for my fellow humans by imagining how I would explain their conduct to space aliens. You see, I don’t want the Martians to get the impression my species is irredeemably stupid, so the exercise forces me to dig deep to figure out any possible rational explanation for the behavior.

ExplainingToSpaceAliensTo appreciate the irrationality of using unaudited computer output to determine who wins our elections, imagine what would happen if people in your city started questioning the accuracy of their computer-tabulated property tax bills. Here’s what would not happen:

The city treasurer would not say that he has always mailed the bills before checking whether his computer tabulated them correctly, and that no one has ever complained before.

The city treasurer would not point out that no law explicitly requires him to check the accuracy of the property tax bills before he mails them.

If asked to audit his computer’s output, the treasurer would not start chattering about the dangers of ‘tampering’ with his own records.

He would not demand that the suspicious property owner pay the full cost of the audit unless the suspected error was tiny–less than 0.25% (one-quarter of one percent.)

And if some deranged city treasurer ever did respond like that, you can bet the local newspaper would not speculate about why the property owners unexpectedly chose to receive suspicious tax bills, or what sort of tinfoil-hat paranoia made them want verification.

Yet that is precisely what happens when citizens have questions about the accuracy of our computer-tabulated election results.

As a culture, we’re computer-literate.  We understand the need to maintain as much security as we can for all computers, including voting machines. We understand the need to test them before putting them into actual use. But voting machines remain the ONLY computers in either business or government that we operate with no routine way of noticing when their output has been affected by errors or by manipulation while the computers were in actual use and not just being tested.

So, how would I explain that to space aliens?

It’s not money: Manual vote-counting to verify the computer output can be done by low-paid temporary staff like poll workers or even by volunteers. Post-election verification would cost only a tiny fraction of our overall elections-administration budget.

It’s not time: Although our statutes unfortunately value speed over accuracy, they still give county officials roughly three weeks following each election to declare results final, and allow them to ask for more time if needed. And verification has been made efficient and economical by sampling methods specifically designed for elections by the American Statistical Association, and by recent technological innovations such as digital ballot images, which can be displayed more quickly than paper ballots can be handled.

So what is it? We can say it’s just habit, but that just kicks the question backwards. Why did such strange habits develop?

The main reasons, I think, are standard human foibles—wishful thinking and its evil twin, denial. We want impartial vote-counting so badly that we imagine it exists where it literally cannot. Just a moment’s thought would make anyone realize that every computer is programmed and maintained by fallible, sometimes dishonest humans. But taking that moment would mean giving up the idea of a magically impartial vote-counting box. Our gut knows that admitting the need for verification in future elections means admitting past elections may already have been stolen without our knowledge. For many it is literally unthinkable that we may already be governed by people chosen by criminals or by computer glitches rather than by the will of the people.

A lesser reason, I think, is the tendency, especially among election officials, to see elections as competitions between individual candidates rather than as the expression of a community’s collective will. Talk not very long to most local elections officials and you’ll pick up a burning desire just to get the thing settled—like your mom felt when she didn’t care which kid was right, she just wanted the fight to stop. Maintaining the illusion of quickly decisive results is more comfortable than making sure everyone understands that Election-Night results are preliminary until verified. I cannot count the times I’ve had election officials express a sense that there cannot possibly be a problem when no individual candidate has challenged the results—as if voters like me have no standing to ask for evidence of accuracy, or as if they themselves have no obligation to ensure accuracy unless challenged.

In summary, it’s a good thing I’m not going to have to defend our management of voting machines to the Haggunenons, because that’s the best I can do. There’s no way around it—using unverified computer output to determine who will govern us is indefensibly irrational.

To get the word out about the necessity for prompt verification and to demonstrate its practicality, the Wisconsin Election Integrity Action Team will be conducting public citizens’ audits of election results in Dane County after every election in 2016.

The next one is scheduled for March 12, at the South Central Federation of Labor Hall, 1602 S. Park St. in Madison. We’ll start the audit at 9 AM and continue until we’ve verified the Dane County outcome of the Supreme Court primary and at least two other contests—maybe around 4 PM. Anyone can drop by at any time to see the process and count votes right along with us.  Who knows, maybe soon we can convince the county elections officials to do this themselves, and I won’t have to worry about space aliens thinking we’re stupid.

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