Monday, August 13, 2007

President Urges Effective Election Audits

That's right. You heard it here first folks. In a July 24th letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California), the President has come out for the competent and ethical use of statistical methods to assure the integrity of elections. (That's a real audit for those who haven't been paying close attention.)

In referring to Senator Feinstein's bill, S.1487, the letter states respectfully that effective election auditing may not necessarily be achieved by investigating a pre-specified percentage of votes or voting precincts. The President urges the Senator to replace the 2% audit requirement in her bill with “audits of sufficient statistical power to assure 99 percent discovery of a potentially outcome-reversing defect in the vote tabulation.” Imagine that -- The President!

Of course, I'm talking here about the President of the American Statistical Association (AmStat), Mary Ellen Bock, but hey, the Secretary of State has decided to require serious election audits recently too! Of course Debra Bowen is only the Secretary of the State of California. But we gotta start somewhere!

The President's letter can be found here and I would suggest sharing it with other members of Congress as well. They are on vacation now, so they should not be too hard to find back in their home states. And don't forget your State election officials! There is also a broader statement from AmStat about the many ways in which statistical methods can support the goal of highly reliable and verifiable election management. You can read that here, in the President's Corner.

As recently as a year ago, 2% audits were all the rage and with the exception of one State, North Carolina, in which the law says that the size of the sample is chosen to produce a "statistically significant result and shall be chosen after consultation with a statistician", no one in government was even considering anything other than ad hoc fixed percentages. Now, we have a bill in New Jersey, an edict in California, and a letter from the President of something!

It's almost as if some folks actually want to solve the electronic vote-counting problem after all.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Congress is from Venus; Californians are from Mars*

* Note: Any references in this piece to planetary bodies or their names are intended to be gender-neutral.

I don't know if anyone else has noticed this, but as I read the documents from the top to bottom review and decertification of e-voting systems by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen and her team, I'm stunned by the contrast between these documents and what passes for election integrity legislation in the US Congress. Venus and Mars have more in common than these proposed laws and regulations do; but one thing's clear: not un
like Venus, Congress is full of hot air!

Consider that on Venus (where Congress resides), even the most basic voting system security precautions such as keeping election management systems (EMSs -- the computers that program ALL the voting machines and ballot scanners in a jurisdiction) off the Internet and the public switched telephone network, have not been included in legislation (such as H.R.811), while on Mars, Bowen and her team have mandated the use of no less than three isolated EMS computers to perform ballot definition programming, central tabulation and reformatting of memory cards -- with nothing but "air gaps" between them (and presumably without wireless transceivers that might be used to bridge those gaps).

Unlike the babbling on Venus, the Martian language is crystal clear too. There is no reason to have to ask a court, a Congressional committee, or a team of Martian lawyers and expert witnesses to interpret it months after an election has been held. This is inevitable on Venus though where the language in the Congressional legislation is barely readable -- even by native Venusians.

There's even an extensive DRE (touchscreen voting machine) ban on Mars, and all the Voter-Verified Paper Audit Records created by the banned Martian DREs have to be hand counted! A portion of the other Martian ballots will have to be hand-counted too, using a risk-based approach and an adjustable sample model with a desired confidence level (e.g., 99%) that the winner of each election has been called correctly. Statisticians and auditors on both planets have been advocating this for years!

But on Venus, Congress is saying that no more than 10% of the paper ballots have to be hand counted, no matter how close an election appears to be. Imagine that! The Venusian Congress is supposed to judge the elections of its members, yet it's the Martians who want to be confident that the winner of each election is called correctly!

Finally, on Venus, those who have proposed a compromise of limiting the purchase and deployment of DREs to the numbers necessary to meet Help Venus Vote Act (HVVA) Accessibility requirements for disabled voters, were actually accused of "ghettoizing" such voters! Yet on Mars, this is exactly what Bowen has decided to do to ensure election integrity.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, I've been thinking of changing the name of this blog to "Election Integrity: Science Fiction", but maybe there's still time for Congress to get their Act together on this issue. After all, some of their key members just happen to be from Mars, uh I mean California.

Let's not forget to thank Debra Bowen and her team for all their great work!