County rolls out first-of-its-kind election audit tool
The Times Standard (2008-06-29) Thadeus Greenson
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Ever want to call for an election recount? Well, the Humboldt County Elections Office might soon give you the chance to do just that, and more.
The Humboldt Transparency Project, a pilot program which officially kicked off last week, aims to allow anyone in the world the opportunity to access images of every ballot cast in an election, which can then be cross-sorted and tabulated by anyone who wants to conduct a recount from the comfort of their own home.
According to Humboldt County Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich, the vision is simple: After the ballots from an election are counted and the results certified, an image of every ballot cast in the county would be put on line. Sorting software would let people view the ballots by precinct, district, race or ballot measure to recount as they see fit.
It's kind of like leaving the full power of an election audit at the fingertips of anyone with Internet access. That's the vision, anyway.
”There's nothing more open than that,” Crnich said.
Crnich said she met with California Secretary of State Debra Bowen in April, and she was supportive but would not fully endorse the project until having more information.
Reached this week, Kate Folmar, a spokeswoman for Bowen's office, said Bowen is a huge advocate of transparency in government and elections, as long as it is in line with state law. But Folmar said Bowen has yet to make any determination on the transparency project itself.
It seems clear why Bowen's office might support the project, as the office's top-to-bottom review of the state's election in advance of the February Primary decertified many of the state's voting machines largely due to concerns over auditability. In explaining her decision at an election forum in San Francisco at the end of last year, Bowen said transparency is critical in the election process.
”Auditability was critical,” Bowen said of her decision at a recent election forum in San Francisco. “The other factor that was very important to me was transparency because it isn't just a question of whether the voting systems are accurate, it's a question of whether any citizen or any group of citizens has the ability to verify the system is accurate.”
It seems the transparency project would do just that, but some aren't convinced.
A local election watchdog group, the Humboldt County Voter Confidence Committee, has been vocally critical of the county's use of optical scan ballot counting machines, and member Bob Olofson said the transparency project does little to alleviate those concerns.
”By our definition of transparency, the whole process has to be seeable and understandable to the general public,” Olofson said. “We have concerns that if the transparency project is used as a way of basically validating a count by optical scan, we would not have faith in that validation because it's essentially one technology verifying another technology.”
Because optical scanners in general, and specifically those in Humboldt County, operate using proprietary codes not available to the general public and have been shown to be vulnerable to hacking, Olofson said the Voter Confidence Committee is unwavering in its calls for hand counts of all ballots cast in the county.
A group of citizens, some counting and others observing, tabulating election results, Olofson said, is the only way to make the entire process open and understandable to the general public. That said, Olofson said the committee supports the intent of the transparency project and sees it as an excellent audit tool for elections with hand-counted ballots.
”The intention we honor absolutely,” Olofson said. “At this point it sounds like it could be excellent, with emphasis on the 'could be.' We simply reserve judgment.”
At the University of Utah's Political Science Department, voting technology expert and assistant professor Thad Hall explained a different concern.
”What are the perverse incentives that can arise from this?” Hall asked rhetorically, before explaining the project could lead to vote swapping or even vote selling.
Because there is no way to verify how someone voted, Hall said swapping and selling votes isn't much of an issue in elections. But, if someone could use an identifying mark on their ballot that could then distinguish it from others on-line, Hall said the new project might create a host of problems.
The California Election Code already states that any ballot with identifying marks should be rejected, but what constitutes an identifying mark seems to fall into a gray area. With the transparency project, Hall said Crnich and the county elections staff will have to be careful when considering that definition and deciding what ballots to reject.
”One of the questions would be whether they are opening up the issue of having to reject a lot of ballots,” Hall said, adding he also questioned whether the project's funding might be better spent on some other “transparency” technology, like providing live-stream video feeds of ballot handling and counting.
But Crnich said part of what's been amazing about the project is that it's gotten off the ground on a shoestring budget.
Crnich said the project began this year on the backs of hard working volunteers, who have developed counting and sourcing software for the program.
The entire trial run, Crnich said, was only possible because former Elections Manager Lindsey Mc Williams
' position was left vacant for several months before a replacement was hired, saving the Elections Office some funding. The office spent $26,000 on a new scanner and put $5,000 down for new materials. The project's pilot program began last week, Crnich said, with elections staff scanning ballots from the June primary through a newly purchased optical scanner.
But, the department has hit a snag.
”Our problem today is bandwidth,” Crnich said, adding that it doesn't look like the department will be able to attain the bandwidth necessary to get the ballots on line this year. Instead, Crnich said the images and software will be placed onto DVDs that anyone can pick up at the Humboldt County Elections Office.
Other hurdles, Crnich said, have been cleared.
She said a volunteer just came up with a numbering scheme so that the image of a ballot can be matched with the actual ballot, meaning anyone can print out a ballot image, bring it into the Elections Office and elections employees would be able to find that specific ballot.
Though still in its infancy, Crnich said it's possible the project will put the Humboldt County Elections Office on the map.
”There are exciting, exciting possibilities here, and it's something that can be duplicated anywhere,” Crnich said.
Thadeus Greenson can be reached at 441-0509 or firstname.lastname@example.org