Wednesday, March 28, 2007

H.R.811: Fact & Friction – Part III

By Mark Lindeman, Ph.D. and Howard Stanislevic, Research Consultant

In Part I and Part II of this series, we pointed out that the post-election audits provided for in H.R.811 are too small to achieve a high level of statistical confidence that close races for US House seats will be correctly decided. While this observation is actually in agreement with a letter being circulated by Rep. Holt’s office signed by nine prominent experts, we also pointed out that this letter actually overstates the confidence level of Holt’s audits by not taking variations in precinct size into account. The same letter also stated:

“In truth, it may be that attempting to prevent an ‘unacceptable’ level of error on electronic voting machines through audits is too administratively burdensome.”


Put that way, frankly, audits seem pretty useless: if attempting to prevent unacceptable error is just too much of a burden, then what is the point? But on a close reading, the intended point here is subtler and more useful: while it would be ideal to confirm that every vote count is accurate within a fraction of a percentage point, it is much easier to confirm that at least every outcome is correct. Unfortunately, the letter stops short of recommending an audit protocol that actually confirms outcomes. We think that election audits should not only indicate the general accuracy of the counts, but provide a solid basis for believing that the winners really won. Getting the winner wrong is the “unacceptable” error, in most people’s minds – and we believe that it can be prevented without undue administrative burden.

In a nutshell, we believe – and will show below – that the basic problem with the H.R.811 audit is simply the misallocation of resources. By making smarter choices, the country can achieve high confidence in the outcomes of almost all federal races with about the same amount of count-auditing effort. (We say “almost” because in extremely close races, there can always be grounds for controversy about what votes should be counted. Verifying the substantial accuracy of the count isn’t the only task – but it is a very important one.)

Looking too hard in all the wrong places

First, we decided to examine all federal elections in the last three cycles (2002 through 2006) – the presidential race, elections for all 100 Senate seats, and almost 1300 contested House races (about 575,000,000 total votes cast) – to explore the consequences of H.R.811’s quirky allocation of audit resources. For each race, we estimated the size in hand-counted votes of an H.R.811 audit, and the probability that this audit would detect hypothetical outcome-altering vote miscount, using the precinct size adjustment and the other assumptions we made in Part II of this series. We chose to measure the audit size in votes, instead of the number of precincts, because precincts come in many different shapes and sizes. Even using Holt’s methodology, some precincts will require only one race on their ballots to be audited, while others may require audits of all three federal contests. The cost of doing the audit is therefore not necessarily proportional to the number of precincts audited, but is much more closely related to the number of accurately hand-counted votes.

We then figured the size of conducting what we call a 95% SecureAudit in each race: an audit large enough to achieve 95% confidence of detecting outcome-altering miscount under the same assumptions as we have used in evaluating the H.R.811 audits. The closer the race, the larger the necessary audit size. (Some folks call this idea a “probability-based audit,” as in, “based on yielding at least an ‘X’% probability of detecting outcome-altering miscount.” We don’t care much what the audits are called, as long as the idea is clear.) We did the same calculations for a 99% SecureAudit.

(The fine print: these estimates are crude because we do not use actual precinct-level data, but they do consider important variables such as the total number of precincts in each state and the average number of precincts per Congressional District based on the statewide totals. We don’t think that the estimates are biased for or against any particular audit approach. To detect widespread systemic corruption, for all these audits we assume that at least one precinct per county is randomly audited, as required under H.R.811.)

Over these elections, a 95% SecureAudit would support much greater confidence in election outcomes than H.R.811 audits, at somewhat lower cost. Across all three election cycles, H.R.811 audits would mandate manually auditing about 20.3 million votes (about 3.5% of the total vote in these elections).

Here is a table showing the number of races with outcomes that would NOT be confirmed with the H.R.811 audit for various confidence levels:


Unconfirmed Outcomes w/H.R.811 Audit
Confidence Level# of Races
99%238
95%162
90%135
50%49

In 135 of the races, the estimated probability of detecting outcome-altering miscount would be less than 90%. In 49 races, the probability would be less than 50%. These low-confidence races include not only the very closest races, but some in which the winning margin is over 4%. They even include at least one race (NH-CD1) in which the winning margin is over 7%, but the number of precincts – and, therefore, the audit size – is unusually small. (We’re not saying that these races are likely to be decisively miscounted. We are saying that if one of them were decisively miscounted, an H.R.811 audit very well might miss the problem.)

By comparison, for an estimated total SecureAudit size of about 18.7 million ballots, over 7% less than in H.R.811 audits, we could have attained 95% confidence of detecting outcome-altering miscount for all of these races, as shown in the following table:







SUMMARY OF AUDITED VOTES
RacesHR811 95% Conf.
SecureAudit
PRES '044,426,2933,681,772
SENATE '021,835,4162,063,447
HOUSE '022,521,6262,556,846
SENATE '042,964,9541,691,639
HOUSE '043,661,6572,925,976
SENATE '062,098,3751,725,986
HOUSE '062,774,2094,103,394
TOTAL20,282,53018,749,060


Thus, high confidence levels can be achieved not by mandating “burdensome” audits across the board, but by shifting resources used in the H.R.811 audit from races and precincts where they aren’t needed to confirm the outcome, to those where they are.

Furthermore, we could attain 99% confidence for every audit in every race by auditing a total of about 22.7 million ballots, about 12% more than under H.R.811:







SUMMARY OF AUDITED VOTES
RacesHR81199% Conf.
SecureAudit
PRES '044,426,2934,449,975
SENATE '021,835,4162,457,639
HOUSE '022,521,6263,142,558
SENATE '042,964,9541,933,563
HOUSE '043,661,6573,507,100
SENATE '062,098,3752,146,380
HOUSE '062,774,2095,100,798
TOTAL
20,282,53022,738,013


If counting those additional votes to get to 99% confidence seems a bit excessive, consider that the above numbers do not include any of various optimizations that could be used to achieve higher confidence levels if the States were permitted to do so. We will say more about this issue below.

Why are 95% or 99% SecureAudits about the same total size as the hit-or-miss H.R.811 audits? Because, as we’ve said, the H.R.811 audit throws audit resources into races where they aren’t especially needed. Consider the 2006 California Senate race, which Dianne Feinstein won by about 24 points over Republican challenger Dick Mountjoy. Assuming for a moment that Mountjoy actually won this election, there would have to be 20% miscount favoring Feinstein in almost half of California’s 21,000+ precincts. In principle, a truly random sample of just 10 precincts would let us detect such massive miscount with about 99.8% confidence. Our SecureAudits use 58 precincts because California has 58 counties, so they achieve better than 99.9999999999999% detection probabilities. California law mandates a 1% audit (about 210 precincts) – let’s just say that would be a lot of 9s! But H.R.811 says, in effect, that even a 2% audit is too lax – we “need” a 3% audit – presumably to bolster public confidence. This mandate would hamstring California and other states by misallocating resources that should be used to confirm other races in need of stringent audits.

For instance, H.R.811 would settle for a 3% audit in small, competitive races such as in California’s 4th district. (We have no reason to think that this race was actually miscounted; our question is what sort of audit would be needed to justify confidence that it wasn’t.) The race in CA-CD4 wasn’t even all that close, by H.R.811 standards: the winning margin was 3.2 points, qualifying only for a 3% audit. However, a 3% audit in a California congressional race amounts to about 12 precincts – an audit size that would confer only about 45% confidence of detecting outcome-altering miscount. In Connecticut’s 4th district, which had a similar margin, a 3% audit would have counted only five precincts – yielding about 21% confidence. So, in the interest of public confidence, should the federal government pay to audit hundreds more precincts in an uncompetitive statewide race, or should it put some of that money into the small and close races? Which is a better use of money? Which is a better use of election officials’ time? And which is more administratively burdensome?

Notice that in 2006, the SecureAudits end up being larger overall than the H.R.811 audits. That is a good thing: it means that more races were competitive in 2006, and SecureAudits would have done a much better job of confirming the results. We don’t advocate auditing on the cheap; we advocate auditing intelligently in order to achieve high confidence across the country.

Choices, we need choices…

Another way to increase the confidence level (without increasing cost) is to randomly audit smaller units such as individual DREs or optical scanners instead of entire precincts. This approach can be especially helpful in states with fewer, larger precincts such as New Hampshire. For example, if there were two scanners per precinct and 200 precincts, randomly auditing 16 scanners instead of 8 precincts in a race with a 10% margin would achieve 99% confidence as opposed to only the 90% confidence achieved by selecting whole precincts. In each case, about 4% of the votes would be counted but the larger number of smaller audit units results in a higher confidence level. (Of course no particular ballot type should be excluded from an audit, and this is another area where H.R.811 could stand some improvement. It’s very hard to understand how the bill deals with absentee ballots!)

A purely random audit has some limitations. It doesn’t “care” whether a precinct is large or small, whether the apparent winner did surprisingly well or poorly. Doing away with random audits would be a terrible mistake: properly done, they provide an excellent check on the overall accuracy of the system. However, to detect possible concentrated miscount in particular races, it may be useful to add a “challenge” element to the audit. Losing campaigns could draw up lists of precincts whose results they deem most suspicious; immediately after the random sample is selected, campaigns could choose additional precincts to be audited. If some attacker did attempt to switch 20% of the votes in 5% of the precincts, probably any savvy analyst would choose at least one of those precincts. So the attacker may choose to steal fewer votes in each of more precincts, but that would increase the attack’s visibility to the random part of the audit. In simulations, we have found that adding even as few as 5 or 10 “challenge” precincts often does as much to improve the detection as quadrupling the random audit size! For instance, in Connecticut-CD4 in 2006, we estimate that auditing about 10% of precincts – evenly divided between random and challenge precincts – could yield the same 99% confidence as randomly auditing about 48% of precincts. Take that result with plenty of salt, but still, it’s interesting. It also appears that auditing larger precincts more heavily than smaller precincts could be substantially more efficient than treating them all equally.

There are other suggestions about how to improve upon the H.R.811 audits, and we won’t try to do justice to all of them here. Suffice it to say, we see no reason to settle for H.R.811’s 3%/5%/10% audits. Unfortunately, not only does H.R.811 not implement such suggestions, but it isn’t entirely clear whether H.R.811 would even allow individual states to implement them. The bill does contain language that allows the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to approve alternative audit methods that are “at least as effective.” Obviously we think that a SecureAudit is much more effective than the H.R.811 audit overall – but we can imagine the lawsuits over whether it is ever acceptable to audit less than 3% of precincts in any federal race, no matter how large or how uncompetitive. Let us be clear that we support vote-count audits even in uncompetitive races, and we don’t have a fixed position on what the minimum audits should be. But we certainly don’t think that large minimums in some races should be allowed to discourage efforts to confirm the outcomes of other races. Above all, we don’t think that Congress should endorse the premise that audits that often yield less than 50% confidence – sometimes less than 20% confidence! – of detecting outcome-altering miscount are good enough. Instead of crossing our fingers that activists around the country will be allowed to fix the audits state by state, wouldn’t it be smart to do better at the federal level right now?

Click here to learn how to tell the House Administration Committee to allow the states to conduct high-assurance, probability-based audits like the SecureAudits proposed above.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

So 2008 is history -- ALREADY? I don't think so, and here's why:

Some of the biggest proponents of voter-verified paper ballots, records and trails are sounding pretty gloomy lately about the chances of implementing them in time for the 2008 elections. Fortunately, there are other ways to improve election integrity.

On Dec. 7, 2006, just before the end of the 109th Congress, H.R.6414, Rush Holt's Vote Tabulation Audit Act of 2006 was introduced with no cosponsors and little fanfare. But unlike some of the provisions of this year's H.R.811, the "other" Holt bill seemed to make a lot of sense.

It was drafted last year using a much more collaborative process than H.R.811, and as a result, some of the major mistakes in the bill (such as allowing printouts of cast vote records from DRE memory to be used to correct central tabulator totals -- yikes!) were actually corrected before the bill was introduced. And unlike H.R.811, the provisions of the other Holt bill can be implemented in time for the 2008 elections, or even in time for a practice run in 2007!

The bill as written would rule out all errors in the vote count except within-precinct errors, and although these are the most dangerous and difficult to detect, they are also more difficult to generate than just switching vote tallies around in a Microsoft Access or other commercial off the shelf database program on a central tabulator PC. They say even a chimpanzee can hack an election that way, and even Hand Counted Paper Ballot tallies can be altered at the central tabulator, more properly referred to as the Election Management System (EMS).

So why not put the other Holt bill on the "fast track" for 2007 now? And while you're at it, get those EMSs off the Internet so they can't be hacked so easily in the first place, Mr. Holt!

There might still be a few bugs in this bill, but at least the major ones were fixed last year and it will get elections officials in every precinct in the nation used to the idea of auditing something. In fact, this bill requires a 100% audit of precinct totals.

Also, some of the better parts of H.R.811 could be included in the 2007 version of the other Holt bill. For example, how about disclosure of all ballot definition programming? And how about an audit of all ballot definition programming before and after every election? It would only take two trained auditors per county to do that -- one from each of the major parties, and of course those from other parties on the ballot should be welcome too!

For those who may not be informed, ballot definition programming error is an unequivocally documented source of vote miscount and is almost never examined or audited by anyone other than the few election insiders who are allowed access to it. It's an open invitation to deliberate malfeasance. But unlike e-voting source code, it's not even a "trade secret" because it's the definition and configuration of the election itself -- not the so-called "intellectual property" of the voting machine companies. Besides, a properly written law could force its disclosure anyway. So what are we waiting for?

I think a Holt Ballot Definition and Tabulation Audit Act of 2007 would be a huge step in the right direction that could be implemented now. And it would not require any voting equipment to be replaced next year -- not even lever machines!

"Don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good!" That's what proponents of H.R.811 keep saying. But haste makes waste, a stitch in time saves nine, and an apple a day...well, you get the drift. Besides, the reforms in this "other" Holt bill are needed regardless of whether or not H.R.811 passes, so we might as well get with the program!

For more information on how this Holt bill could improve election integrity almost immediately, please see: Section VIII: Transparent Aggregation of Voting Results Using the Internet by Juan Jover in the DNC's report, "Democracy At Risk: The 2004 Election in Ohio", as well as the links to VotersUnite's excellent documentation of ballot programming errors above. And of course, the famous Bev Harris/Howard Dean central tabulator hack (as seen on TV).

And then call Holt's office!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

H.R.811: Fact & Friction -- Part II

Guest blogged by Mark Lindeman, Ph.D.*

In Part I of this series, Howard Stanislevic pointed out that the audits mandated by H.R.811 (as written) would be far too small to confirm the outcomes of some close elections – while being far larger than necessary to confirm the outcomes in other races.

You might wonder why it could possibly be a good idea to allow inadequate audits in some races while mandating needlessly large audits in others. (Even if you think there is no such thing as a “too large” audit, the misallocation of resources ought to trouble you.) I’m not sure, although I think Rep. Holt may be using an informal political calculation:

Last time I introduced a bill, people complained that a 2% audit sounded too small, so let’s require a minimum 3% this time – that’s fifty percent more audit! And let’s make the audits even larger in close races – but let’s not go over 10% no matter what, because election officials will get mad if they expect endless recounts.


And so, the Holt bill mandates 3% audits (i.e., 3% of precincts or equivalents) in most federal races, 5% audits in races with a winning margin under 2%, and 10% if the winning margin is under 1%.

Let me be clear: I like Rush Holt, and I don’t fault him and his people for trying to figure out how to pass a bill. And I think the 3% to 10% audits are not only “better than nothing,” but much, much better than nothing. Still, as compromises go, this one is strange. Not only do some people feel it is too soft, and some people feel it is too tough – but the numbers say that it is too soft and too tough. That’s interesting, but not really in a good way. I think we can do better.

First, let me say a word about why H.R.811 is much, much better than nothing. Some people suspect that the 2004 and/or 2006 elections witnessed vote miscount on a massive scale nationwide, on the order of several percentage points or perhaps more. There are about 180,000 precincts or equivalent units around the country, so H.R.811 would entail audits in at least 5400 precincts (3%) in every federal election. Audits that large – if truly random and immune from tampering – should detect vote miscount if it occurred in as few as one out of a thousand precincts nationwide, with 99.6% confidence.

Even a minimum audit of just one precinct per county selected at random (also required by H.R.811) would hand count the votes in about 3000 precincts, or 1.7% nationally. This audit would still detect vote miscount that occurred in as few as one out of 657 precincts with 99% confidence. If one out of every five presidential votes in each of these corrupt precincts were miscounted by the voting system so as to favor one candidate, that would only be enough to alter the popular vote margin by about 0.1%. And, similarly, a “clean” audit of this size would verify the total vote in Senate and House races to about the same tolerance. Not too shabby.

Unfortunately, verifying the approximate accuracy of the overall totals is not the same as confirming election outcomes. As we were all reminded in 2000, it actually doesn’t matter who wins the popular vote! It is very useful to have an upper bound on the overall extent of miscount, but that in itself would not confirm the outcome of the presidential election, nor any other election. Concentrated miscount could still alter the outcome in particular races – and, possibly, determine the presidency or the balance of power in Congress. Not so great.

The Norden letter: accentuating the positive

Holt’s office, sensibly, wants to portray its proposal in the best possible light. It has directed people to a letter, signed by nine prominent experts who consulted on H.R.811’s audit provisions, which seems to express support for the bill. (I will call this the “Norden letter” only because Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center for Justice is the first signatory.) But as Howard pointed out, the Norden letter also points to some of the problems with the plan. In fact, it understates them.

The Norden letter embraces the general concept of a “tiered” audit – basically, the idea that audits should be larger in closer elections. For instance, on page 2, it argues that in an “imagined typical” congressional district, in order to have 90% confidence of detecting a miscount that would overcome a 1% margin, it would be necessary to audit 10% of the votes. The letter continues:

Mandating a 10% audit for all races would be a high burden on many States. And in the vast majority of races, a shift of 1% of the votes would not alter the outcome of the race.

In such races (says the letter), we might be “willing to live with the risk” of not detecting the 1% counting error – while in the small fraction of races in which a 1% shift would alter the outcome, we might not be. So far, so good. Certainly I think that an audit proposal should focus on delivering high confidence in election outcomes.

The trouble is, even by the Norden letter’s calculations, H.R.811 clearly does not deliver high confidence in the outcome of every race. The letter poses the question of how likely audits under H.R.811 are to detect errors that would change the outcome of particular races. Still assuming an “imagined typical” congressional district of “400 precincts of roughly equal size,” the letter presents the following probabilities of detecting miscounts just large enough to overcome various margins, for various audit sizes. (These calculations also assume that 20% of votes per precinct could be switched from one candidate to the other, without being too blatantly obvious.) The results for the audits mandated by H.R.811 appear underlined in bold.

Norden memo’s estimated probabilities of detecting outcome-altering miscount
[Edited to correct typographical, formatting and rounding errors]

# of pre-
cincts

Margin of victory

Probability in a 2% audit

Probability in a 3% audit

Probability in a 5% audit

Probability in a 10% audit

400

0.50%

10%

14%

23%

41%

400

0.75%

15%

22%

34%

57%

400

1.00%

18%

27%

40%

66%

400

1.75%

31%

43%

61%

86%

400

2.00%

34%

46%

65%

88%

400

5.00%

66%

80%

94%

99.6%


The letter rightly points out that the H.R.811 audits yield much higher probabilities than an across-the-board 2% audit would. That said, the letter carefully avoids speculating about how many people would be “willing to live with” as low as a 40% probability of detecting possible outcome-altering miscount. (If you don’t think that’s bad, keep reading.)

Note well that for margins smaller than 0.5%, the probability of detecting outcome-altering miscount will get smaller… and smaller… and smaller. Presently, some states provide for optional or mandatory recounts for races with very small winning margins, while others do not. People may disagree about how far Congress should go in mandating large audits for very close races. But let’s not kid ourselves that the issue will never arise. In 2006, the race in Connecticut’s 2nd district was decided by under 200 votes, about 0.1%. A 10% audit in such an election might confirm that the election was pretty close, but it certainly can’t confirm who won.

Even if we set aside very close races, the confidence problem is actually worse than indicated by the Norden letter. Unfortunately, the letter’s reference to “imagined typical” districts is only too accurate. In real life, congressional districts don’t have “precincts of roughly equal size.” That wouldn’t matter if we could expect that any vote miscount would be randomly scattered across precincts regardless of their size. But what if an attacker were able to target the largest precincts? Then fewer precincts would have to be miscounted in order to reverse the election outcome, and it would be even harder for a random audit to detect the fraud.

To give an idea of how much precinct size can matter, I examined vote counts in Ohio’s 18 congressional districts in 2004, and chose to use the 5th district as a baseline. Among Ohio’s congressional districts, the 5th had the greatest precinct size disparities – but the disparities are even greater in (for instance) New Hampshire’s congressional districts. So, OH-05 is a bad case, but definitely not the worst. I used the OH-05 size distribution to revise the Norden letter’s assumptions. For instance, the letter assumes that in order to overcome a 1% margin of victory, votes would have to be miscounted in 2.5% of precincts. However, in OH-05, the largest 1.1% of precincts contain 2.5% of the votes. Therefore, my size-adjusted analysis assumes that one could overcome a 1% margin of precincts by miscounting 1.1% of precincts, instead of 2.5% of precincts. (With rounding, that works out to miscount in five precincts instead of ten.) I make a similar adjustment based on the margin in each race – generally, the smaller the margin, the larger the adjustment. Adjusting for size, what happens to the probabilities of detecting outcome-altering miscount? They go down, a lot.

Size-adjusted estimated probabilities of detecting outcome-altering miscount

# of pre-
cincts

Margin of victory

Probability in a 2% audit

Probability in a 3% audit

Probability in a 5% audit

Probability in a 10% audit

400

0.50%

4%

6%

10%

19%

400

0.75%

8%

12%

19%

34%

400

1.00%

10%

14%

23%

41%

400

1.75%

17%

24%

37%

62%

400

2.00%

18%

27%

40%

66%

400

5.00%

46%

60%

79%

95.8%

If you think 40% sounded iffy, how do you feel about 23%, or 19%, or even less in a closer race?

Granted, the previous example is moving toward a worst case – but it isn’t there yet, especially since the Norden letter’s assumptions about number of precincts are also somewhat optimistic. Although it is true that congressional districts average about 400 precincts apiece, sixteen states average fewer than 300 precincts (or equivalent units) per House district. New Hampshire has a total of under 250 units, divided between two House districts, and these units vary wildly in size. In New Hampshire’s 1st district, just three units (out of 114) comprised almost 22,000 House votes in 2006 – over 11% of the total. In non-technical terms, New Hampshire is where percentage-based audits go to die. One nice feature of H.R.811 is that it would allow jurisdictions to adopt stronger audits; I hope that New Hampshire would!

It's one thing to complain that someone else's proposal isn't good enough, but the real question is: can the country feasibly do better? Howard and I are convinced that it can. Since H.R.811 audits too few ballots in some races and more than enough in others, it should be possible to attain more confidence in election results at little or no additional cost. To test our reasoning, we decided to examine all federal elections in the last three cycles (2002 through 2006) -- the presidential race, elections for all 100 Senate seats, and almost 1300 House races. We looked at the consequences of H.R.811's quirky allocation of audit resources, and we explored some alternatives. We will present the results of this analysis in Part III of this series.

* Mark Lindeman teaches Political Studies at Bard College in New York.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

H.R.811: Fact & Friction -- Part I

Now that H.R.811, Congressman Holt's "Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007", is wending its way through the House with almost 200 co-sponsors, I thought it would be a good idea to blog about some under-reported aspects of the bill and the process that spawned it.

Despite the best intentions of many in the election integrity (EI) community, there has been a relative lack of attention paid to certain crucial problems with the new Holt bill and their potential solutions. I'm speaking primarily about software-independent audits and recounts -- not just "auditability" -- a buzzword bandied about in Congressional testimony and elsewhere.

It's taken years to get members of Congress interested in doing anything about the lack of independent verification of the e-vote tallies generated by touchscreen direct recording electronic (DRE) and optical scan electronic vote-counting systems, but now that we may be on the cusp of doing something (via H.R.811, Rep. Rush Holt's new bill in the House), it doesn't seem to be nearly enough.

Holt's bill, which I had the good fortune to be involved in drafting, leaves much to be desired. And the drafting process itself, while being somewhat open to the EI community, was not as open as advertised. Many important leaders in this movement had not even seen the drafts but more importantly, it was not possible to tell who had and who hadn't because there was no coordinated effort to make this known. This made meaningful collaboration and discussion rather difficult because no one knew who else had a copy of any particular draft and who did not.

Some expert advice was ignored too. How else can one explain the loophole in the bill that allows Election Management Systems such as Diebold's GEMS, ES&S's Unity and Sequoia's WinEDS to be connected directly to the Internet?

Moreover, the final version of the bill was vetted by very few of us and by the time some major mistakes were identified in the bill, it had already been introduced in the House.

One such example is the new language that makes the so-called paper "ballot" the ballot of record only in the event that irregularities are found in an audit or recount. The problem is there is nothing anywhere in the bill to require a recount, no matter how closely a race appears to be decided!

Therefore we are left with at most, a 10% manual audit standing between a correctly tabulated federal election outcome and an incorrect, possibly fraudulent one. Such an audit, which is the only requirement in the bill for a software-independent count, may not be enough to detect an outcome-altering discrepancy, or any discrepancy at all for that matter.

While some states may conduct manual recounts, others will not, or may only conduct recounts using software-dependent methods such as counting cast vote records from DRE memories or rescanning paper ballots.

For example, in Ohio's 15th Congressional District, there was only a 10% hand count of a US House race with a 0.5% margin in 2006. Surprisingly, the Columbus Dispatch reported this as a "recount", but worse than this is the fact that nothing in H.R.811 would have required anything more effective.

So does the audit in the Holt bill guarantee the correctness of outcomes in federal elections? Don't bet on it.

In fact, the 10% "recount" of the Ohio CD-15 race seems to have been a model for H.R.811, which is extremely troubling. If the US Congress, who under the Constitution has the right to judge the elections of its members, is satisfied with only a 10% recount in such close elections, one has to wonder how seriously they are taking this responsibility and for what purpose all those voter-verifiable paper audit records generated as a result of H.R.811 will ever be used.

Although some proposed improvements were included in the bill in one form or another, the most important ones (involving audits and recounts) were never seriously considered, despite some reports to the contrary. The auditing clauses in the bill were based on what seems like an ad hoc approach, requiring more than a minimum percentage of precincts to be sampled randomly, but only in extremely close races, the outcomes of which may not necessarily be confirmed with the mandated audits.

And it gets worse.

The minimum percentage of the audit, which was 2% of precincts in Holt's bill in the previous Congress, H.R.550, has been raised unnecessarily to 3% in this bill. That's an increase of one half. But because this higher minimum applies to every federal contest, it drives up the cost of auditing noncompetitive races or those with thousands of precincts in states such as California. So election officials will have something new to complain about besides having to deal with paper records -- they will be forced to recount many votes unnecessarily. This fruitless exercise will divert resources from the more important task of counting enough votes to confirm the outcomes of closer races where larger audits will be needed.

As I've said on several occasions in correspondence about H.R.811, the minimum audit is too big; the maximum audit is too small; sometimes the audits will be just right, but this will be purely coincidental.

This author, along with others who have written election auditing protocols, has suggested a proper way to conduct audits by basing the sample sizes on the probability of detecting outcome-altering miscounts. Variations in precinct size also need to be taken into account. This was repeatedly brought to the attention of Mr. Holt's office but we were told only that other experts would be addressing the auditing issue.

Finally, shortly after the auditing language in the bill was released, a letter to Mr. Holt penned by those with whom he apparently had consulted, showed that the audits in the bill will not provide a high level of confidence that races were correctly decided in many cases. The letter also stated that attempting to prevent an unacceptable level of error on electronic voting machines through audits may be, "too administratively burdensome."

Rather than throwing in the towel, we will offer a different assessment of the auditing problem and Mr. Holt's solution in Part II of this series.

Fortunately, it's not too late to rectify the errors in H.R.811, but this depends on using the bill as a vehicle for amendments, and also trying to improve the Senate version now under construction by Senator Dianne Feinstein's office.

Here are some comments produced by Teresa Hommel, to which I contributed, with links to other useful suggestions for amending H.R.811. The bill with all its faults still has the potential to help solve the e-vote-counting problem by requiring voter-verifiable paper records, but it also has the potential to do away with software-independent recounts of those records in federal elections by sending a clear message that a 10% hand count is good enough for the US Congress.

The bill's supporters are quick to point out that it's "better than nothing", but personally, I expected more from a member of Congress such as Mr. Holt who, to his credit, has taken so much of an interest in this issue -- especially now that his party is in power.

Click here to read Part II of this series.