September 20, 2020

Voting Machine Inspection

Yesterday, I had a chance, with some colleagues, to look over the new e-voting machines that will be used in the future here in Mercer County, New Jersey. They’re AVC Advantage machines, made by Sequoia. The machines were available for public inspection at Princeton Borough Hall. (They’re available today too, at the Suzanne Patterson Center, right behind Borough Hall.)

The machines have a low-tech user interface, a big board covered with a paper printout of the ballot, with switches underneath the paper. The paper is covered by a thin sheet of clear, flexible plastic. You press on the little box printed next to your candidate’s name, and a switch under the paper is triggered. A computer inside the machine detects the switch-press and lights a little green X next to the candidate’s name. When you’re done, you press a bright red “Cast Vote” button, which is supposed to cause the computer to record your vote.

The machine’s minders were careful not to let us look at the mechanism inside. When we got there the access panel was ajar; but when I asked whether I could look inside one of the minders quickly closed and locked it.

The physical security of the machine looked pretty lousy. The guts of the machine are behind a large plastic door on the back side of the machine. The door bent unexpectedly when I tugged gently on its corner. It seemed to be made out of an ordinary plastic, not the thick, tough kind used in kids’ toys these days. My guess is that I could probably rip off the door with my bare hands. It could certainly be removed with a screwdriver or crowbar. The lock looked wimpy too, like the kind of lock you might put on a toolshed or a locker at the gym; not as good as a standard house or office key. I doubt anyone could get the panel open during an election without being noticed, but that owes more to the number of people around than to the inherent strength of the door and lock. The machine will be physically vulnerable beforehand when it’s not as well attended.

They had a copy of the instruction manual that is normally given to poll workers, but they seemed nervous when we looked at it. It seemed to me that they were trying to decide whether to take the manual away from us. The manual had a small black-and-white photo of the machine’s innards, showing a circuit-board of some sort, and a printer.

The vendor offers little if any technical information about the machine. They do publish a brochure, which helpfully observes that use of these machines offers “[n]othing less than the complete elimination of human error.”

Comments

  1. Chris Tunnell says:

    I plan on try to look at them today, but while I was reseaching the product I came across this:

    http://www.scoop.co.nz/mason/stories/HL0404/S00024.htm

    I doubt the integrity of the author, but it talks about the actual functionality of the machine towards the bottom of the page.

  2. Chris Tunnell says:

    When I went, a lady pointed me into the room and told me that if I had more questions or wanted a demonstration, she could find somebody to give me one. I didn’t take her up on this offer though.

    I noticed a few things about the machine. It seemed rather easy to use, like claimed. The buttons were like TV remote control buttons, just under a film cover that had candidates names on it. I tried hitting two buttons at once, and it only registered one. Behind the film, there is a large array of buttons, but only a few are active. Hitting these didn’t cause any problems. They had the basics down.

    An interesting option was the “Write-in” option. Basically, there are a list of options that would correspond to candidates, but the last option is “Write-in.” If you select this, then you can type in your candidates name on a little screen that could probably fit two lines of 25 characters. What surprised me was that when I typed in, “me”, it did not complain. This made me wonder how they counted write-ins considering you could have, “Bush”, “bush”, “boosh”, etc. associated with one candidate. Is there human involvement in this stage?

    I also noticed the door on the back, which was very flexible. It surprised me when I applied very little force to the corner and created a two-inch gap. I saw a reciept printer like one would find attached to a cash register. The printer even included the power button and feed button. I also noticed a black box that had text on it that indicated that it stored the votes. I wasn’t able to see that much though, considering it was a brief glance that was by accident. I thought the door was broken at first, but after I made sure that it wasn’t, I moved on.

    There was also a control unit attached to the voting machine. It was fairly unexciting, but was hardwired to the machine as apposed to wireless. That made me feel a little better.

    I tripped over the power cord when I was looking at the back of the machine. This knocked out the power cord, but luckily nothing happened since there appears to be a battery inside of the machine that kept power to it. There were no beeps or sign of power loss except for a red button that indicated if it recieved AC power.

    There wasn’t that much I could do with the machine though. To test out the machine, that is to actually vote, I started the machine with the remote control unit after asking permission from an employee. This was fairly straight-forward. I made my vote, hit the red “Submit”-type button and was done.

    I put the machine in audio-mode so that I could test the handicap features. I am assuming the machine wasn’t meant to be in audio-mode, because the machine froze after this. I was unable, by any means, to get it back into regular voting mode. This is probably just because the machine was waiting for audio-input, but didn’t have a microphone/speaker.

    Overall, the system was user-friendly. I do not know how much I trust it from a software standpoint. I know that I do not trust the physical security of the device because it has the same level of physical security that a Dell computer has.

  3. Todd Jonz says:

    Chris writes:

    > This made me wonder how they counted write-ins considering
    > you could have, “Bush”, “bush”, “boosh”, etc. associated with
    > one candidate. Is there human involvement in this stage?

    This was an issue in our local elections last month here in rural Vermont, where paper ballots are counted manually. There was only one candidate for the school board listed on the ballot, but the instructions read, “Vote for no more than three candidates.” At the annual town meeting the night before the election, two individuals introduced themselves as parties seeking write-in votes for the other two open seats on the board.

    The moderator advised those of us wishing to support these candidates to make sure that we knew the correct spelling of their names, explaining that write-in votes for, say, “Bob Peterson” and “Bob Petersen” would be counted as votes for two different individuals.

    Protocols probably vary in different jurisdictions, but I would hazard to guess that “Bush” and “Boosh” would be counted as different candidates in most jurisdictions. The question of “Bush” versus “bush” could be a bit trickier depending on the letter of the applicable law.

  4. Tom Jedrzejewicz says:

    eVoting scares me tremendously, because of the complete lack of transparency. In some elections (i.e. 2000 Presidential) a small number of districts/precincts are critical. When a computer controls the voting, how can we really be sure that some smart criminal hasn’t tweaked the program in the computer?

    – Imagine a “bug” in the program that forces every 20th vote to a specific candidate. The machine would show the person what they selected, but then print on the receipt and count what was programmed.

    I STRONGLY prefer a paper-based system, with fully open observing and counting at each precinct. Each voter marks the ballot with what they want, and puts it into the box. The precinct captain and an observer from each party count together. If they disagree, they do it again, until they all agree.

    It works like a charm in Canada, which has the population of California, 5 time zones, and precincts roughly the same size as US precincts. Results are known and certified 4 to 5 hours after the polls close.

  5. Chris Tunnell says:

    Well Tom, the problem with your acceptance of e-voting is that you are accepting marginal error in the voting process and allow for certain forms of corruption. Even if it is a better system at the moment, in my mind, the reason why people like Ed Felten are critiquing e-voting is to eventually have less error in e-voting than paper-balloting. It will take time, require us falling back on what we trust, but eventually people will trust them.

    You surely are right that they shouldn’t be trusted now though.

  6. I do NOT accept eVoting.

    In my opinion, transparency and openness are the KEY elements in a voting system. Paper is the only system that can assure both of those.

    You can certainly automate other parts of the system, such as voter identification, issuing of the ballots, etc. But the ballots should be marked by the person, the very same mark should be counted by multiple people, and the results passed up the ladder by people.

    In theory, the machine can do the job faster and more accurately than people can. The problem is that the machine is not transparent, is subject to manipulation and tampering, and is as subject to the political process as every other governmental acquisition. The Diebold system is a perfect example of this.