January 24, 2019

Cheating with paper ballots

In my previous article, I discussed 10 ways that voting machines could cheat, in ballot-marking, ballot-scanning, and ballot tabulating; and I discussed which of these cheats could be caught and corrected during risk-limiting audits and recounts of the paper ballots.  In particular, cheat-methods 1, 2, 5, and 7 will be detected/corrected by audits/recounts; methods 3,4,6,8,9,10 will likely not be detected/corrected.  Therefore I argued for hand-marked optical-scan ballots (which can’t be cheated by methods 3,4,6,8,9,10).

Now let me discuss cheat methods 11 and 12:

How to cheat, method 11:  Hack the software that is used in the audit/recount process to make it cheat.

Solution 1:  Don’t use computers in the audit/recount process.  This solution is extreme and, for some audit methods, impractical.  For example, we may have print a spreadsheet listing the “manifest” of ballot-batches, how many ballots are in each batch; we may use a spreadsheet to record and sum the tallies of our audit or recount.  How much of a nontrivial “business method” such as an audit, can we really run entirely without computers?

Solution 2:  Use computers during the audit/recount, but in a limited, software-independent way.  That means, any time a computer program is used in some part of the process, the inputs, algorithm, and outputs of that program should be public and transparent.  Any member of the public should be able to recalculate the results of the program, independently.  For example, if a spreadsheet is used to sum up the vote totals in the precincts, print out the spreadsheet, and anyone can add it up themselves using a pencil, a mechanical calculator, or their own computer with their own computer program.  (In the June 2018 risk-limiting (ballot polling) audit performed in Orange County, CA, audit teams-of-four entered all their observations onto paper spreadsheet forms, for tabulation by computer but which could be independently tallied by anyone.)

How to cheat, method 12:  Steal the entire ballot box and replace the paper ballots with fraudulent ballots marked differently.  Or just ignore the paper ballots entirely.

This used to happen on a regular basis.  In Duval County Texas, 1948, “Parr was the Godfather.  He had life-or-death control.  We could tell any election judge, `give us 80 percent of the vote and the other guy 20 percent.'” [Campbell, Deliver the Vote, 2005, p. 224]  That is, in some counties, the party bosses who controlled the polling places and ballot boxes would just report whatever counts they wanted, regardless of the ballots. [See also: Robert Caro, Means of Ascent, 1991, Chapter 13]  In the 19th and early 20th century, insider election fraud was widespread in the U.S. [Saltman, The History and Politics of Voting Technology, 2006]

Solution 1:  Pollwatchers from both (or all) political parties present at the polls and during the vote counting, as witnesses.  Definitely a good idea.  But it wouldn’t have worked in Duval County 1948, or Jersey City 1968, where physical intimidation kept the opposition party away; and where the most important elections were primary elections, not general elections.

Solution 2:  Supervision of elections by the State government, or by the Federal government, or indictments by Federal prosecutors, to restore democracy to the process.  In 1870-76, there averaged ten indictments per week nationwide for election fraud.

Solution 3:  Professionalization.  Over the past 150 years, as election administration has developed into a profession with best practices, standards, codes of ethics, and so on, we could hope that gross frauds (with everyone “in the know”) would no longer be tolerated.

Solution 4:  Shorten the “chain of custody” of the ballot box to an absolute minimum.  Immediately after the polls close, in the presence of witnesses, open the ballot box, count the ballots by hand, and make the results known.  The ballot box, and the ballots, are never out of sight of the witnesses.   (This is standard procedure in many countries that use hand-counted paper ballots–but in those countries, hand counting works well because there’s only one contest on each ballot.)

How to cheat, method 13:  While working in a recount (or audit) of paper ballots, hide a bit of pencil lead under your fingernail.  Surreptitiously mark overvotes on ballots marked for the candidate you don’t like.  (A traditional American method.)

What this all illustrates is that paper ballots with audits and recounts, by themselves, are not a panacea.  They need careful and transparent chain-of-custody procedures, and some basic degree of honesty and civic trust.

Solution 5:  Precinct-count optical scan.  Votes are recorded and tabulated by the voting machine immediately as they are cast; paper ballots are saved in a sealed ballot box for later audit or recount.   In case of disagreement, the paper ballots are considered the official ballot of record.  But still, the disagreement, all by itself, is strong evidence that something went wrong: either the machines are cheating, or the machines are miscalibrated, or the paper ballots were altered.  The election fraudster will find it more difficult to make fraudulent paper ballots that exactly match a fraudulent voting machine’s report, than to hack just the voting machine or just the paper ballots.  Although the paper ballots are the default ballot of record, serious discrepancies can lead to investigations.  Once it ends up in court, the judge can hear evidence; perhaps there will be reason to rule that the machine counts are trustworthy where the paper ballots are not.

Notice that central-count optical scan, where the paper ballots go through a nontrivial chain of custody before the first time they are scanned, does not permit Solution 5.

All the solutions I described here take the form, we can never fully trust that the computerized voting machines haven’t been hacked to cheat, so we must have trustworthy human processes to make sure that the paper ballots, marked by the voter, are preserved unaltered and recounted accurately.  But what if there were a way to audit and trust the election results, independent of trusting the very human process of recounting paper ballots?

Solution 6:  End-to-end-verifiable voting.  In a future article I’ll discuss E2E-verifiable, methods by which each voter can trace his or her own ballot through the process to gain assurance that has been recorded and counted correctly.   Perhaps some of these methods can increase the assurance and efficiency of our elections, especially those E2E-V methods that use paper ballots that can also be audited using random audits by human inspection, providing belt-and-suspenders assurance.


  1. Stephen Green says:

    No matter what you think, Vote..

  2. This reminds me of the 2008 U.S. Senate race in Minnesota between Al Franken and Norm Coleman, where the initial count had only a couple hundred votes separating the two candidates ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Senate_election_in_Minnesota,_2008 ).

    In Minnesota we use hand-marked paper ballots which are immediately scanned, and the original ballots are counted by hand in case of a recount.

    The 2008 recount was conducted in the open, and parts of the proceedings were streamed over the Internet. It took months. In the end, the two candidates were still only separated by a couple hundred votes but with a different winner.

    I think it’s fair to say that thanks to the openness of the process only the most partisan Republicans could claim that the outcome was incorrect despite the extremely narrow margin.

    And we all got to argue about how to count the Lizard People ballot: https://blogs.mprnews.org/newscut/2008/11/the_lizard_people_ballot_solve/

  3. Tomonthebeach says:

    Vote electronically. Have the machine print the ballot along with a barcode. The voter signs the ballot. If the barcode shows up in scans twice – fraud. Not so tricky

  4. Carole Appel says:

    How do you preserve secrecy of the ballot if the voter has to sign the ballot?