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HAVA

More on the STAR Voting System

The Chron updates us on the latest in modern voting technology.

The drumbeat of election rigging and foreign hacking of voting machines have energized ongoing efforts to develop a new model of digital election equipment designed to produce instantly verifiable results and dual records for security.

Election experts say this emerging system, one of three publicly funded voting machine projects across the country, shows potential to help restore confidence in the country’s election infrastructure, most of which hasn’t been updated in more than a decade.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s taken years and years to get it done,” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk and leader of the voting machine project. “Now that we’ve had this election, there’s renewed interest.”

A prototype of the system, dubbed STAR Vote, sits in an engineering lab at Rice University, and bidding is open for manufacturers who want to produce it wholesale. Similar efforts to innovate voting systems are in the works in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“County clerks in these jurisdictions are the rock stars of running elections,” said Joe Kiniry, CEO of Free & Fair, an election systems supplier currently bidding on contracts to manufacture the designs of both Travis and Los Angeles counties. “If they have success in what they do, it will have, in my opinion, a massive impact on the whole U.S.”

Like any aging digital device, the voting machines are eventually bound to stumble, said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. He pointed to Detroit, where the number of votes counted didn’t match the number of voters who signed in. And he noted that reports of machines flipping votes more likely result from aged touch screens than a conspiracy to rig the election.

Yet there is seldom space in county budgets to replace the machines, which cost usually between $3,000 and $5,000 each. The vast majority of electronic voting equipment was purchased with federal funds from the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Most money reached the states by 2004, and there’s no foreseeable second wave of federal aid.

“This is really an oncoming crisis,” said Norden, who interviewed more than 100 election officials for a 2015 report about aging voting equipment published by the Brennan center. “A lot of election officials have been unhappy with the choices that the major vendors are providing.”

[…]

STAR Vote runs automatic audits, comparing a statistical sample of the paper ballots with the digital records to verify results.

“The savings are just enormous over doing a recount,” Stark said.

While other systems allow for comparison of precinct-level data, STAR Vote can compare paper ballots with individual voters’ digital ballots, which are encrypted and posted online.

Officials could take a small sample of printed ballots and compare them with digital results to conclude with high confidence that election results were correct.

The system itself is also inexpensive, built with off-the-shelf tablet computers and printers, which Wallach said will cut the price down to half of the current norm. Advanced software makes up for the cheap hardware, designers said, and they plan to make the software open-source, meaning it is free to use and, unlike current systems, can be serviced by any provider without exclusive long-term contracts.

I’ve written about this before, and while I love the design of the STAR machine, I don’t have much hope of getting to vote on one any time soon. The political climate just doesn’t seem conducive to any effort to improve the voting experience, and the lip service we got from Greg Abbott back during the peak Trump-whining-about-rigged-elections period has surely gone down the memory hole. The one possible way in that I can see for these devices is their lower cost. At some point, enough of the current voting machines will become sufficiently inoperable that replacement will be needed, and a cheaper device ought to have an advantage. Let’s hope the process of getting a manufacturer in place goes smoothly.

(NB: “Wallach” is Rice professor Dan Wallach, who as I have noted before is a friend of mine.)

Paper ballots make a comeback

From the Everything Old Is New Again department:

States have abandoned electronic voting machines in droves, ensuring that most voters will be casting their ballots by hand on Election Day.

With many electronic voting machines more than a decade old, and states lacking the funding to repair or replace them, officials have opted to return to the pencil-and-paper voting that the new technology was supposed to replace.

Nearly 70 percent of voters will be casting ballots by hand on Tuesday, according to Pamela Smith, president of election watchdog Verified Voting.
“Paper, even though it sounds kind of old school, it actually has properties that serve the elections really well,” Smith said.

It’s an outcome few would have predicted after the 2000 election, when the battle over “hanging chads” in the Florida recount spurred a massive, $3 billion federal investment in electronic voting machines.

States at the time ditched punch cards and levers in favor of touch screens and ballot-scanners, with the perennial battleground state of Ohio spending $115 million alone on upgrades.

Smith said the mid-2000s might go down as the “heyday” of electronic voting.

Since then, states have failed to maintain the machines, partly due to budget shortfalls.

“There is simply no money to replace them,” said Michael Shamos, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University who has examined computerized voting systems in six states.

The lack of spending on the machines is a major problem because the electronic equipment wears out quickly. Smith recalled sitting in a meeting with Missouri election officials in 2012, where they complained 25 percent of their equipment had malfunctioned in preelection testing.

“You’re dealing with voting machines that are more than a decade old,” Smith said.

Roughly half of the states that significantly adopted electronic voting following the cash influx have started to move toward paper.

[…]

Shamos said he expects the move back to paper ballots to continue, unless there’s a high-profile crisis similar to the 2000 election.

Still, he predicted the drumbeat for Internet and mobile voting will grow.

“Eventually [a generation is] going to have the thought that it’s idiotic for me not to be able to vote using my cell phone,” Shamos said.

Then all bets are off.

No doubt. I can think of plenty of reasons for this, beyond the lack of money for new machines. There are the well-known security issues and accompanying mistrust of electronic voting machines, mostly coming from my side of the aisle. Some local officials are working on that, but the money issue is likely to be a formidable hurdle. Beyond that, there is the success that some states have had with voting by mail, plus the success we saw here in Texas in pushing absentee ballots. They’re convenient, they allow one to take one’s time, and they don’t require a photo ID. I have to wonder what the politics of expanding access to mail ballots would look like in the Lege this year, especially if a Democrat filed a bill to enable it. Might be worth watching.

Mail ballots aren’t perfect – people who move frequently or who aren’t particularly fastidious about keeping track of their incoming mail may find them inconvenient – and it’s hard to see this as a step forward, even if it might help boost turnout. I think Professor Shamos is exactly right about how future generations will view a return to paper ballots. But until the killer voting app gets developed, this may be our best bet. Link via Ed Kilgore.

Voter ID 2011

The debate is going on in the Senate today over voter ID – it will be taken up by the House later, after committee hearings that are sure to be a freak show. You can follow the ins and outs at places like the Chron’s Texas Politics blog and the Statesman’s Postcards from the Lege; be sure to read this Seinfeldian classic so you can fully appreciate the deep unseriousness of the whole shebang. I do want to highlight one bit from this Chron preview story, helpfully flagged by TexasChick in the comments:

“This year’s Senate Bill 14, however, allows a person to vote only with a Texas driver’s license or state identification card, a valid military ID or a federal document such as a passport that proves citizenship and contains a photograph. The bill also includes $2 million for voter education and requires the Texas Department of Public Safety to issue a free photo ID card to any citizen who wants it for voting.”

Now I firmly believe that if the state is going to put conditions on citizens’ ability to exercise their rights, the very least they can do is to try to accommodate the citizens who need help meeting those conditions. As such, I’m not going to criticize the $2 million that’s to be allocated (from federal HAVA funds, mind you) to accomplish that, other than to note that it’s not a whole lot of money though it is greater than zero. I just want to point out that what this shows is that if the people in charge really want to do something, they will find a way to pay for it. So, two million bucks to help disenfranchise marginally fewer people (some people, anyway) than strictly necessary, we can do that. Public education, on the other hand, that’s gonna get cut somewhere between 9.3 and 9.8 billion dollars. Priorities, you know. Abby Rapoport, who notes that this version of the voter ID bill is more stringent than any currently out there, and as such may not survive scrutiny from the Justice Department (we can only hope), has more.

UPDATE: How could I possibly forget about the devious nuns? Gotta watch those nuns, they sure are tricky.