Election mgmt system on computer board

Election Results from Machines

Counting the Vote Is What Counts

by Mary Gallegos

Just about everyone will say that counting the vote can win an election. But just about nobody understands how the voting systems really count the vote. The tabulators are generally an unknown piece of the system.

We focus on signature verification, or the lack thereof, and invalid voter rosters. Granted, those are valid concerns, but what really matters is the counting. In our modern Election Management Systems, tabulators do this task. Election workers and/or voters insert their paper ballots into these machines, trusting that the counting is done correctly. Nothing is visible to the voter or the election worker that the count was correctly taken, or even that the paper ballot was accepted. Many of these ballots are rejected by the tabulator because the ballot cannot align with their registration markers, and these ballots need election workers to finish the job. Election workers redo the ballot and try again.

Those of us who pay attention to this are told that the modern tabulators make a “digital copy” of the ballot (like a Xerox copy) and use the digital copy for counting. The original paper ballot is simply filed away for record keeping. The computer system has no record of the paper ballot, just the digital copy. I have read about the attempts to audit the digital copies. These have never been released to any of us “common folk” to even see, much less count.

As a software engineer, I am aware of the many ways the software can be built to count, or not count, anything it chooses. I recently read a Twitter posting HERE that describes how the modern tabulators can make multiple files (groups of digital copies) of the incoming ballots.

They can group some of these marked ballots as blank ballots, and stage them for the election workers to fill out any way they choose. It is easy to digitally “unmark a ballot”. They simply erase the text embedded in the image. The software blanks it out, much like whiteout on printed paper.

The software, it seems, keeps some of the original digital copies intact. I believe those are the digital images election observers can see on the voting system screens. Observers can now witness that the digital images were there, filled out by the voter. Everything appears to be okay. The “whited out” digital copies are usually staged by the software to the election workers as “under votes.” These are the digital ballots the election workers can “adjudicate” where they decide what the voter intended. The election workers asked to adjudicate are not aware that the software fiddled with the digital image. Only the system administrators and the software engineers know.

We have learned much about how these systems can cheat. What we must discuss is how to fix the broken system. Paper ballots are good, but who counts the ballots, and how the count is accomplished is the essence of the problem.

We need a counting system that is visible and can be easily audited.

Just like the old machines that totaled everything in front of our eyes and gave us a written receipt showing item by item what was in the count. The old machines produced the written receipt on request. At the end of the day the written receipt was posted for all to see. Some of the features in the old voting systems were good. Let’s keep those.

(Mary is a retired software engineer with experience in real-time system design of onboard sensor processing systems.)

(The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Nevada Signal.)