“You can get the ballots and count them yourself”

My friend Oliver points me to Humboldt County’s initiative to post publicly all of its cast ballots. The article includes a video of Mitch Trachtenberg explaining how his open-source software package counts scanned images of ballots. “You can get the ballots and count them yourself,” he says.

Yes! Fantastic! Nice work Mitch, and nice work Humbolt county! What a great idea.

Now, the question of course is: how do I know that the list of posted ballots is really the proper list, that no ballots were added or removed? The answer is, so far, to maintain a strong chain of custody:

The volunteers were deputized before they started the project, and the chain-of-custody on the ballots was carefully controlled throughout the process. A county worker removed the ballots from secure storage, and the ballots were never left alone with one person at a time. The workers had to fill out forms carefully tracking the time the ballots left secure storage, the time at which they were unsealed from containers, and other steps.

That sounds great, but note how it takes just one failure at one point in that chain of custody to wreak havoc. And, more importantly, note how a voter who wishes to verify the count from home is forced to trust that election officials did the right thing in handling the ballots.

So the Trachtenberg solution is, in a sense, halfway-open-audit voting: everyone can audit the counting of the votes, but not the gathering of legitimate votes, a task which must still be performed by trusted election officials.

The point of fully open-audit voting systems is to expand this “everyone can verify” idea to the entire voting process. And of course that’s tricky, because one has to ensure voter anonymity in the process. In fact, the Trachtenberg method suffers from one significant problem: I can literally sign my ballot and prove to others how I voted, since my ballot is posted for the world to see.

The challenge of open-audit voting is to expand this “everyone can verify” idea to the entire process, from end to end, all the while ensuring voter anonymity is preserved, so that voters cannot be improperly influenced. That’s why it gets complicated at times. But the end-goal, letting “everyone verify,” is clearly powerful, and Mitch Trachtenberg just gave the world one more enormous piece of evidence to that effect.

2 thoughts on ““You can get the ballots and count them yourself”

  1. That’s exactly what they did in Zimbabwe’s last elections (posting the results at each voting location), and that’s what forced Mugabe to concede to power-sharing with his opponent. Couldn’t quite get away with electoral fraud so easily when the results were posted for everyone to see.

  2. That’s exactly what they did in Zimbabwe’s last elections (posting the results at each voting location), and that’s what forced Mugabe to concede to power-sharing with his opponent. Couldn’t quite get away with electoral fraud so easily when the results were posted for everyone to see.

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