E-Voting: Of No Account

>Was Virginia Senator James Allen being disingenuous in his concession speech yesterday? The New York Times reported that Allen, the losing candidate in one of the tightest of the tight Senate races this week, chose not to ask for a recount, because "the owners of government have spoken and I respect their decision." But the U.K.'s Guardian, and many others, report Allen as also saying, "I do not wish to cause more litigation that would not alter the results." There's the disingenuous part: Allen doesn't say why we should be confident the results wouldn't change.

For that we have to go to the technologists. As Johns Hopkins computer science professor Avi Rubin notes on his blog, 93 percent of Virginia's votes were made on electronic voting machines that have no paper ballots or paper backups—simply put, there's nothing to recount. "A meaningful recount in Virginia is not possible," Rubin writes.

The Virginia machines can, after the fact, print out paper ballots that simulate the votes that are electronically recorded, but, Rubin says, "Of course they are going to match what was on the machine.... The so-called recounts ... are really just print and count, not RE-count. It is a waste of time." What's needed is a paper ballot, or a paper backup, that the voter looks at, approves, and then is stored at the time of the voting.

Rubin also calls attention to a House race that sorely needs real paper-based voting. In Florida's 13th district, the Republican candidate is ahead by fewer than 400 votes out of more than 200 000—in other words, a miniscule one-fifth of one percent margin. The experts are puzzled by the votes in one county within the district: 18 000 of the 138 000 voters in Sarasota County failed to vote for either candidate. That's a 13 percent undervote, as it's called, more than twice that of one neighboring county, and more than five times larger than another, according to an article in today's New York Times (free registration required). A number of voters apparently asked to re-enter their votes before they were recorded correctly; many more voters may have failed to notice a problem.

The Times cites a calculation made by the Sarasota Herald Tribune that showed that if the undervotes were simply unrecorded, and not uncast, the Democratic candidate might have been the winner. "If the missing votes had broken for Jennings by the same percentage as the counted votes in Sarasota County, the Democrat would have won the race by about 600 votes instead of losing by 368."

It wouldn't come as any great surprise. According to TPM Café's poll tracking, the Democratic candidate led in all five of the head-to-head polls taken in the race, going back to 19 September.

Sadly, there's just nothing to recount.

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