At this point, we still don’t know what caused the high undervote rate in Sarasota’s Congressional election. [Background: 1, 2.] There are two theories. The State-commissioned study released last week argues that for the theory that a badly designed ballot caused many voters to not see that race and therefore not cast a vote.
Today I want to make the case for the other theory: that a malfunction or bug in the voting machines caused votes to be not recorded. The case sits on four pillars: (1) The postulated behavior is consistent with a common type of computer bug. (2) Similar bugs have been found in voting machines before. (3) The state-commissioned study would have been unlikely to find such a bug. (4) Studies of voting data show patterns that point to the bug theory.
(1) The postulated behavior is consistent with a common type of computer bug.
Programmers know the kind of bug I’m talking about: an error in memory management, or a buffer overrun, or a race condition, which causes subtle corruption in a program’s data structures. Such bugs are maddeningly hard to find, because the problem isn’t evident immediately but the corrupted data causes the program to go wrong in subtle ways later. These bugs often seem to be intermittent or “random”, striking sometimes but lying dormant at other times, and seeming to strike more or less frequently depending on the time of day or other seemingly irrelevant factors. Every experienced programmer tells horror stories about such bugs.
Such a bug is consistent with the patterns we saw in the election. Undervotes didn’t happen to every voter, but they did happen in every precinct, though with different frequency in different places.
(2) Similar bugs have been found in voting machines before.
We know of at least two examples of similar bugs in voting machines that were used in real elections. After problems in Maryland voting machines caused intermittent “freezing” behavior, the vendor recalled the motherboards of 4700 voting machines to remedy a hardware design error.
Another example, this time caused by a software bug, was described by David Jefferson:
In the volume testing of 96 Diebold TSx machines … in the summer of 2005, we had an enormously high crash rate: over 20% of the machines crashed during the course of one election day’s worth of votes. These crashes always occurred either at the end of one voting transaction when the voter touched the CAST button, or right at the beginning of the next voter’s session when the voter SmartCard was inserted.
It turned out that, after a huge effort on Diebold’s part, a [Graphical User Interface] bug was discovered. If a voter touched the CAST button a sloppily, and dragged his/her finger from the button across a line into another nearby window (something that apparently happened with only one of every 400 or 500 voters) an exception would be signaled. But the exception was not handled properly, leading to stack corruption or heap corruption (it was never clear to us which), which apparently invariably lead to the crash. Whether it caused other problems also, such as vote corruption, or audit log corruption, was never determined, at least to my knowledge. Diebold fixed this bug, and at least TSx machines are free of it now.
These are the two examples we know about, but note that neither of these examples was made known to the public right away.
(3) The State-commissioned study would have been unlikely to find such a bug.
The State of Florida study team included some excellent computer scientists, but they had only a short time to do their study, and the scope of their study was limited. They did not perform the kind of time-consuming dynamic testing that one would use in an all-out hunt for such a bug. To their credit, they did the best they could given the limited time and tools they had, but they would have had to get lucky to find such a bug if it existed. Their failure to find such a bug is not strong evidence that a bug does not exist.
(4) Studies of voting data show patterns that point to the bug theory.
Several groups have studied detailed data on the Sarasota election results, looking for patterns that might help explain what happened.
One of the key questions is whether there are systematic differences in undervote rate between individual voting machines. The reason this matters is that if the ballot design theory is correct, then the likelihood that a particular voter undervoted would be independent of which specific machine the voter used – all voting machines displayed the same ballot. But an intermittent bug might well manifest itself differently depending on the details of how each voting machine was set up and used. So if undervote rates depend on attributes of the machines, rather than attributes of the voters, this tends to point toward the bug theory.
Of course, one has to be careful to disentangle the possible causes. For example, if two voting machines sit in different precincts, they will see different voter populations, so their undervote rate might differ even if the machines are exactly identical. Good data analysis must control for such factors or at least explain why they are not corrupting the results.
There are two serious studies that point to machine-dependent results. First, Mebane and Dill found that machines that had a certain error message in their logs had a higher undervote rate. According to the State study, this error message was caused by a particular method used by poll workers to wake the machines up in the morning; so the use of this method correlated with higher undervote rate.
Second, Charles Stewart, an MIT political scientist testifying for the Jennings campaign in the litigation, looked at how the undervote rate depended on when the voting machine was “cleared and tested”, an operation used to prepare the machine for use. Stewart found that machines that were cleared and tested later (closer to Election Day) had a higher undervote rate, and that machines that were cleared and tested on the same day as many other machines also had a higher undervote rate. One possibility is that clearing and testing a machine in a hurry, as the election deadline approached or just on a busy day, contributed to the undervote rate somehow.
Both studies indicate a link between the details of a how a machine was set up and used, and the undervote rate on that machine. That’s the kind of thing we’d expect to see with an intermittent bug, but not if undervotes were caused strictly by ballot design and user confusion.
What conclusion can we draw? Certainly we cannot say that a bug definitely caused undervotes. But we can say with confidence that the bug theory is still in the running, and needs to be considered alongside the ballot design theory as a possible cause of the Sarasota undervotes. If we want to get to the bottom of this, we need to investigate further, by looking more deeply into undervote patterns, and by examining the voting machine hardware and software.
[Correction (Feb. 28): I changed part (3) to say that the team "had" only a short time to do their sstudy. I originally wrote that they "were given" only a short time, which left the impression that the state had set a time limit for the study. As I understand it, the state did not impose such a time limit. I apologize for the error.]