August 25, 2016

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Sarasota: Limited Investigations

As I wrote last week, malfunctioning voting machines are one of the two plausible theories that could explain the mysterious undervotes in Sarasota’s congressional race. To get a better idea of whether malfunctions could be the culprit, we would have to investigate – to inspect the machines and their software for any relevant errors in design or operation. A well-functioning electoral system ought to be able to do such investigations in an open and thorough manner.

Two attempts have been made to investigate. The first was by representatives of Christine Jennings (the officially losing candidate) and a group of voters, who filed lawsuits challenging the election results and asked, as part of the suits’ discovery process, for access by their experts to the machines and their code. The judge denied their request, in a curious order that seemed to imply that they would first have to prove that there was probably a malfunction before they could be granted access to the evidence needed to tell whether there was a malfunction.

The second attempt was by the Department of State (DOS) of the state of Florida, who commissioned a study by outside experts. Oddly, I am listed in the official Statement of Work (SOW) as a principal investigator on the study team, even though I am not a member of the team. Many people have asked how this happened. The short answer is that I discussed with representatives of DOS the possibility of participating, but eventually it became clear that the study they wanted to commission was far from the complete, independent study I had initially thought they wanted.

The biggest limitation on the study is that DOS is withholding information and resources needed for a complete study. Most notably, they are not providing access to voting machines. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that if you want to understand the behavior of voting machines, it helps to have a voting machine to examine. DOS could have provided or facilitated access to a machine, but it apparently chose not to do so. [Correction (Feb. 28): The team’s final report revealed that DOS had changed its mind and given the team access to voting machines.] The Statement of Work is clear that the study is to be “a … static software analysis on the iVotronics version 8.0.1.2 firmware source code”.

(In computer science, “static” analysis of software refers to methods that examine the text of the software; “dynamic” methods observe and measure the software while it is running.)

The good news is that the team doing the study is very strong technically, so there is some hope of a useful result despite the limited scope of the inquiry. There have been some accusations of political bias against team members, but knowing several members of the team I am confident that these charges are misguided and the team won’t be swayed by partisan politics. The limits on the study aren’t coming from the team itself.

The results of the DOS-sponsored study should be published sometime in the next few months.

What we have not seen, and probably won’t, is a full, independent study of the iVotronic machines. The voters of Sarasota County – and everyone who votes on paperless machines – are entitled to a comprehensive study of what happened. Sadly, it looks like lawyers and politics will stop that from happening.

Comments

  1. avatar the_zapkitty says:

    Hmmm… Veddy intrestink!

    Emphasis on the “-stink!”…

    So how are they supposed to actually research the Mebane and Dill results without machine access?

    Oh… they’re not supposed to, are they?

  2. avatar Ned Ulbricht says:

    The January 27, 2007 report, “Deal frees 800 machines for March election”, indicates that the root causes of all critical anomalies have already been effectively determined.

    I’m very glad to hear that you’re not involved in any whitewash of the problems reported on election day:

    Throughout the day, dozens of people complained that their votes in the 13th Congressional District were not recorded properly. One volunteer election watcher said he heard dozens of such complaints.

    It does appear that this technically “very strong” team has concluded that those problems will not be reported again in March.

  3. Ned,

    I think you’re misreading the news article you cite. The “deal” appears to unfreeze some of the voting machines frozen in the Sarasota investigation, in exchange for election officials agreeing to preserve the state of those machines in case it needs to be investigated.

    I doubt the DOS-sponsored study team had any role in this decision.

  4. Given the critical voting problems that affected the national elections in both 2000 and 2004, it really isn’t all that surprising that the Florida Department of State is resisting a full investigation of the voting machines used there.

    Electronic voting machines should be required to have an auditable paper trail and be based on open source, verifiable and testable software. Doing anything less than that is risking a loss of the right to a fair and free election.

  5. avatar Ned Ulbricht says:

    Ed,

    On November 5, 2006, the Herald-Tribune reported that Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent had emailed a warning about a “critical” issue. She apparently had immediately determined after receiving reports of problems with the early voting process that ballot design was at fault. I would agree that the DoS-sponsored team didn’t have any role in that determination—they hadn’t been formed yet.

    But, in the 90 days since the election, it must have been conclusively determined that the initial finding was correct. Otherwise, it would be reckless to plan to use these machines in March.

    The bug reports of vote-loss on ES&S machines in previous elections must have all been cleared up. They would have investigated the possibility of a regression.

  6. I’m curious if it wouldn’t have benefited to have remained on the team if only to ensure a participating voice unwilling to publish a report with a clear answer in lieu of one that remained inconclusive owing to, and stating directly, a lack of access to the necessary resources, if indeed that were the end result?

    Of course, having no experience on such fact finding missions I don’t know if that’s even possible.

  7. Ed,
    Thanks for adding the statistical analysis paper links to your blog. I think they confirm the proposition I made earlier. The chart, Fig 6 on page 17 of the Dec 3 ed of the Herron et al paper shows a plot of undervote rates vs precincts. There is a wide dispersion of the rates which I think supports the ballot design theory over malfunction. However the same chart shows two outlying precincts, above 0.3, which I think also show a cause other than mere random variation of the undervote rates in these precincts. I would like to see if a plot of each machine’s undervote rate clarifies this anamoly. Also the number of machines and their cumulative under vote for these anamolous precincts would be important for forming the basis of a legal review on malfunction assuming that they amount to about 300-400 undervotes.
    Mickey

  8. Ed,
    In your preceeding post regarding the Sarasota Investigation you had indicated that you would be speaking on this subject this week
    The Feinstein Senate Committee hearing on Wednesday 02/07/2006 does NOT list you as a witness participant.

    Was this the speaking appearance you had made reference to last week?

    Were you – once again – dis-invited?
    Have you talked with Rush Holt regarding an appearance at his imminent annoucement of the 2007 version of his “Integrity Bill”?
    Is HE interested in seeing an investigation of the nature you here urge?

  9. This is not at all surprising. The SOS website has instrucitons for the parallel testing that pointedly dismiss checking for the most commonly reported problem with the Ivotronic system in the FL13 race. Most people reported that their initial selection did not appear on the review screen and that they had to go back and revote, sometimes twice, to get the correct selections to appear. Yet the Fl SOS instructions clearly state that the purpose was to check whether the review screen was accurately recorded, but not whether the initial selection was correct.

    But then again, I have the Sarasota SOE on video stating that these machines do not use software. She told the county commission in 2004 that the Ivotronic machines only use hardware “It’s just computer chips” and “not software” and that it goes right from the touch of the screen directly to the computer chips with “no software” involved.

    Guess who is in charge of these machines now?

  10. More on the anomolies – I have an analysis posted on my website at http://www.justaskthem.com/Sarasotavote/

    Democratic voters were about 50% more likely to have registered an undervote. I have not seen any satisfactory explanation for this phenomenon, other than machine malfunction.

  11. steve, your graphs and charts are visually misleading. you should use a zero origin.

  12. Actually only one of my charts does not use a zero origin, so apparently Peter did not actually read past the first few lines. The reason that chart does not use a zero origin is to emphasize the difference between the undervotes among voters of different precincts. Some portion of the undervote is due to normal reasons that people undervote. Some portion is likely due to poor ballot design. What I show in that first chart is that there is an additional portion of unexplained variance between voters in predominantly Democratic and predominantly Republican precincts. But look further down at the charts showing undervotes by party preference in other races. Those charts do have a zero origin and the difference is consistent across the board. Democratic voters were almost 50% more likely to have their votes lost in the system.

    The best explanation for this discrepency is system malfunction. My theory is that the local election workers may have added an extra comma in the programming for the local ballot, so that votes for Jennings were pushed over into the column for Crist. Then the voter selects Crist or Davis for Governor and the misplaced vote is canceled. But I don’t have access to the softwre that counts my votes, so all I can do is speculate.

  13. A Nutmeg:

    I was not referring to today’s Senate hearing, but to a National Academy of Engineering symposium tomorrow in Irvine CA. (So no, I haven’t been disinvited from anything.) There are several good witnesses at the Senate hearing, including Dan Wallach, who knows the technical issues in Sarasota very well.