Saturday, January 5, 2008

New Jersey's Post-Election Audit Bill and Its Importance to Our Nation

Despite the efforts of election integrity advocates, statisticians and computer scientists, 2007 marked the fifth year since the passage of the Help America Vote Act that the federal government has failed to solve the electronic vote-counting problem. Perhaps more significantly, '07 was the 32nd year since Roy Saltman, working for the National Institute of Standards and Technology's predecessor agency, the National Bureau of Standards, proposed what many believe to be the first workable solution to this problem way back in 1975!

While both Houses of Congress have dithered, on Dec. 13, 2007, the New Jersey Assembly diligently amended their version of the state's post-election audit bill, A2730, to match the Senate version, S507, as amended by Senator Nia Gill. Gill's legislation had already sailed through two Senate committees, and on Dec. 17, the full Senate passed S507 by a vote of 22 to 14. On Jan. 7, 2008 the Assembly will vote on A2730. The bill is expected to pass, and Governor Corzine, who has received many phone calls in support of this bill, is expected to sign it into law.

While there will continue to be calls to replace the state's direct recording electronic (DRE -- pushbutton or touch screen) voting machines with optical scan systems, the audit provisions would apply equally to either system including central-count scanners used to count absentee ballots. Inattentive voters may not verify the paper audit records printed by the DREs, which would be essential to the integrity of the audit, so they will have to be educated and directed to do so. But even those seeking to ban DREs have testified in favor of S507, because they know that optical scanners solve only the electronic-vote-casting problem -- not the electronic-vote-counting one.

Many still have a warm fuzzy feeling when comparing ballot scanners to those used to mark the SATs or other standardized tests, just as some might think that DREs are as reliable as ATMs. But the truth is, both are software-dependent electronic-vote-counting systems, and test after test have shown they were not designed with security in mind.

The same security problems that exist with DREs are present with optical scanners. Both use the same centralized election management systems (typically a single PC for an entire county -- sometimes poorly secured), and with either type of system, the combination of the secret ballot and the trade-secret vote-counting software makes it almost impossible for anyone to know that their vote is being counted as cast. Add to this the fact that error-free software is beyond the state of the art, so even with the best of intentions, it's not possible to know who really won an election counted only electronically with software.

Fortunately the solution to this problem is relatively simple. Not surprisingly, it has little to do with computer science, information technology or software -- and it's not very expensive either. Researchers at Northeastern University and MIT (Aslam, Popa and Rivest) have demystified the statistical procedure involved so that it can be implemented using high-school-level math and a hand calculator. Statisticians, auditors, and other advocates across the nation will now be able to explain this procedure to election officials and average voters.

The solution is to hand count enough votes, at a cost of about 10¢ apiece, to find out who won each audited election contest. And New Jersey's post-election audit bill, S507/A2730 will become the first law in the nation to require confirmation of electoral outcomes by using such a procedure, independently of software.

Rather than live in a world of demon-haunted elections, New Jersey is poised to take the lead in solving the electronic vote-counting problem. If their bill becomes law, it could serve as a model for the nation, with some state-specific tweaks of course. Even now the key provisions of this bill are being copied and tailored to meet other states' requirements.

With the help of public-spirited statisticians, advocates, and election officials, similar provisions can be implemented in any state where there are voter-verified paper records or ballots. Congress might be persuaded to be part of this process, perhaps to help fund it, but with the cooperation of states and counties, federal intervention may not even be necessary to institute this long overdue reform.

The NJ post-election audit bill is a victory for the people of the Garden State; their friends from around the country who helped draft it and showed up to testify in its favor; the election officials who provided valuable insights and consultation; the legislature who passed the bill; and most of all, the bill's sponsor, Senator Nia Gill.

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