Comment on Franklin County voting machines

The Franklin County Board of Elections is asking for comments on new voting machines. I originally tried to paste this on their site, but they have a 500 character limit. There’s no way I could edit this down to fit in that.

Before living in Ohio I lived in Massachusetts, which uses the manually-marked optical scan ballots. This was an extremely effective, straightforward and voter-intent-driven process. I’m happy to see Franklin County moving in that direction.

I am also a software engineer, and work on software related to the encryption protocols used on the web. While I am not a cryptographer, and don’t consider myself an expert in software security, I would say that I am adjacent to it. It’s something I care a lot about.

The user interface for the Hart machine is clearly better. The interface is easier to understand, more responsive, and attractive. It is simpler in the fact that there is only one type of ballot that can be inserted. The machine does a good job of indicating when an undervote or overvote is detected, but being manually marked it is still possible for there to be incorrectly marked ballots, and the potential for a fight over what the “intent” of the voter is in the case of a recount.

The ES&S system, although it seems more complicated and error-prone from a software standpoint, does avoid the “intent” issue by mandating single choices in its touchscreen, though of course the voter might still make a mistake. I was disappointed that the demonstration did not show what an undervote looked like on that system. Still, I don’t think the benefits of this system outweigh the user interface and complexity negatives.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to really recommend either of these systems. They run proprietary software that is not, as far as I can tell, audited by outside software professionals or regulated by the government in any substantial way. The demos don’t describe the physical security features of these devices, nor what safeguards are in place to ensure the integrity of the vote. There is no information on how these systems interact with the outside world, or whether they have any networking components. (Clearly there is some, as ballots are sometimes printed through a laser printer.) It is wonderful and important that these maintain a paper trail, but in situations where a vote isn’t close enough to warrant a recount, how is the Board of Elections ensuring votes are tabulated correctly and fairly?

Lastly, what kind of maintenance and product lifetime guarantees is the Board receiving on these machines? Across the country, many systems are older than 10 years and no longer receiving important security software updates. In some cases, the companies making these machines are out of business. What measures are in place to deal with this possibility, and the inevitable obsolesence of these machines?