July 14, 2024

pesky details with getting a voting system correct

Today was the last day of early voting in Texas’s primary election. Historically, I have never voted in a primary election. I’ve never felt I identified enough with a particular political party to want to have a say in selecting their candidates. Once I started working on voting security, I discovered that this also allowed me to make a legitimate claim to being “non-partisan.” (While some election officials, political scientists, and others who you might perhaps prefer to be non-partisan do have explicit partisan views, many more make a point of similarly obscuring their partisan preferences like I do.)

In Texas, you are not required to register with a party in order to vote in their primary. Instead, you just show up and ask for their primary ballot. In the big city of Houston, any registered voter can go to any of 35 early voting locations over the two weeks of early voting. Alternately, they may vote in their home, local precinct (there are almost a thousand of these) on the day of the election. There have been stories of long lines over the past two weeks. My wife wanted to vote, but procrastinating, we went on the final night to a gigantic supermarket near campus. Arriving at 5:50pm or so, she didn’t reach the head of the queue until 8pm. Meanwhile, I took care of our daughter and tried to figure out the causes of the queue.

There were maybe twenty electronic voting machines, consistently operating at between 50-70% utilization (i.e., as many as half of the voting machines were unused at any given time). Yet the queue was huge. How could this be? Turns out there were four people at the desk in front dealing with the sign-in procedure. In a traditional, local precinct, this is nothing fancier than flipping open a paper printout to the page with your name. You sign next to it, and then you go vote. Simple as can be. Early voting is a different can of worms. They can’t feasibly keep a printout with over a million names of it in each of 35 early voting centers. That means they need computers. Our county’s computers had some kind of web interface that they could use to verify the voter’s registration. They then print a sticker with your name on it, you sign it, and it goes into a book. If a voter happens to present their voter registration card (my wife happened to have hers with her), the process is over in a hurry. Otherwise, things slow down, particularly if, say, your driver’s license doesn’t match up with the computer. “What was your previous address?” Unsurprisingly, the voter registration / sign-in table was the bottleneck. I’ve seen similar effects beforehand when voting early.

How could you solve this problem? You could have an explicit “fast path” for voters who match quickly versus a “slow path” with a secondary queue for more complicated voters. You can have more registration terminals. You could have roving helpers with PDAs and battery-powered printers that try to get further back into the queue and help voters reconcile themselves with their “true” identity. There’s no lack of creativity that’s been applied to solving this class of problems outside of the domain of election management.

Now, these voter registration systems are not subject to any of the verification and testing procedures that apply to the electronic voting machines themselves. Any vendor can sell pretty much anything and the state government doesn’t have much to say about it. That’s both good and bad. It’s clearly bad because any vetting process might have tried to consider these queueing issues and would have issued requirements on how to address the problem. On the flip side, one of the benefits of the lack of regulation is that the vendor(s) could ostensibly fix their software. Quickly.

To the extent there’s a moral to this story, it’s that the whole system matters. For the most part, we computer security folks have largely ignored voter registration as being somebody else’s problem. Maybe there’s a market for some crack programmer to crank out a superior solution in the time it took to read this blog post and get us out of the queue and into the voting booth.

(Sidebar: Turns out, the Texas Democratic Party has both a primary election and a caucus. Any voter who casts a vote in the primary is elgible to caucus with the party. The caucus locations are the same as the local polling places, with caucusing starting 15 minutes after the close of the polls. Expect stories about crowding, confusion, and chaos, particularly given the crowded, small precinct rooms and relatively few people with experience in the caucusing process. Wikipedia has some details about the complex process by which the state’s delegates are ultimately selected. There may or may not be lawsuits over the process as well.)


  1. Oh my gosh. How a state that tracks everybody and his dog not be able to have an accurate list of voters? I don’t want to claim that my country (Switzerland) has the best voting system, nor the most efficient. But I couldn’t imagine there’s worse.

    1) everybody who can vote gets the documents sent to his home address a few weeks in advance (basically everyone having a social security number with birthdate older than 18 years at the time of the poll, minus people who can’t vote — foreigners for instance). The documents include a voting card.

    2) once you have the documents, you can make up your mind for who you want to cast your poll.

    3) you fill in the list and send this by mail back to the community offices. If your voting card is missing in the documents, your vote is invalid.

    4) they keep your documents closed until the day of the poll arrives

    5) if you didn’t vote by mail, you still can go to the poll offices at predefined times.

    6) if you don’t have your voting card with you then too bad for you but you cannot vote. This makes pretty much sense to me. If you have it and you forgot the ballot lists, then they give them to you and you go to the booth in order to fill it in. Otherwise, you probably have the ones you filled in at home and drop them in the urn.

    7) you walk out. The whole process of voting therefore doesn’t exceed 2 minutes.

    8) at time t the poll offices close, and counting starts.

    9) 6 hours later, the results are known.

    I didn’t mention it, but of course there’s never ever a queue in front of the voting offices.

  2. Hazmat Manathon says

    There is a commercial program called “Ask Ed”, an adjunct to electronic voting systems, that deals with this specific issue. I have no idea if it is any good, but it is being used in Westchester County, NY and has sped up the process.

  3. Leon Trotsky says

    In Canada, 11 million paper ballots are counted in under six hours. The paper ballot is trusted and the methods for countering cheating are well known. I simply don’t trust the results of computer voting.

    One good thing about voting in the U.S. is that the people are losing faith in the system. Maybe this lack of trust will lead to revolution and the world will be a better place with no superpowers rather than just one.

  4. There are dozens of ways to influence the outcome of a vote by manipulating the voting registers. If you allow your “friends” to vote twice and deny your “enemies” the right to vote. In some places in the US the dead are known to vote… in other places black people were removed from the voting register because they had names “similar to convicted criminals”. One can also ask your friends to vote early on a specific day, lose the records on who voted that day and ask them to vote again in the actual election. Gerrymandering is another technique, but that falls outside manipulation with voter registration.

  5. When I read about voting chaos in the US, I am so much more appreciative of our systems here in Australia.

  6. My wife works for elections in a Texas county (not Houston). According to her, what you observed is considered proper flow. By design, the registration desk should be the bottleneck. A voter should have an available machine to vote on as soon as registration is complete; so a proper flow will probably have one or two machines (per party) empty at any one time.

    We have here a tradeoff between optimum use of the voting machines and security (they don’t want a lot of extra bodies in the voting area).

    On a related note: She feels that the long queues that you observed have been made dramatically worse by the use of provisional voting required by the Help America Vote act. In this election, a lot of people who are not in the election system are coming out of the woodwork and each needs to be allowed to vote a provisional ballot. This takes a lot of time.