computer vote counting is a radically different trust model

Computer vote counting is a radically different trust model than a hand-counted election.

Instead of a vote counted in public by known individuals, with observers, you have a third-party for-profit vendor counting the vote in private, with testing by the election authority, but no meaningful observation.

If an elections authority proposed to pay a vendor’s employee to count votes in private, even with a complete background check of the employee, I have the feeling that not many people would go for it.

But in what is essentially the same scenario, except with the employee replaced with a “machine”, people don’t seem to have a problem.

I thought about why this might be the case, and it seems to one primary and one secondary thing.  Primary is the idea that a person has unlimited freedom of action, but a “machine” does not.  Secondary is the confusion that because the vote tabulator itself is in public, somehow the vote count is still “in public”, even though it’s taking place inside the literal black box of the tabulator.

This is I guess a 20th Century collision with 21st Century realities.  If you have an assembly line with a machine that makes pins, if you turn your back, it won’t suddenly decide to secretly make hammers.  Because the vote tabulator looks like some sort of machine, and is described usually as either “electronic” or “machine”, people think it is a single-function device.  But it’s actually a general purpose computer.  Which means that not only does it have a wide range of freedom of action, just like a human being, it can lie to you about what it is doing, just like a human being.

It would be interesting to see a polling station set up with a giant human-sized black box that the ballots go into to be counted, and see how people reacted to that.  Because there really is no difference between that and the computer vote tabulator.  Basically you’ve taken a very limited trust in known people you can watch in public, and changed it to a very extensive trust in unknown vendor employees and in the elections organisation itself operating in private.

If you have a very complicated count and very high expectations of a fast count, then there is some justification in using a vote counting computer, as long as you don’t trust the computer.  You have to audit the paper, not the computer.  You can test the computer as much as you want, it can always lie.  This is exactly what happened in the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal, where the car’s computer could detect when it was being tested and would change its behaviour accordingly.  So when you use a computer to count paper, you have to audit the paper with a manual count (a risk-limiting audit).  Unfortunately as far as I know, no Canadian jurisdiction follows a computer ballot count with a risk-limiting audit.

In any case, Canadian federal and provincial elections are trivial to count.  You literally just sort the ballots into a few piles.  And because the count is simple it is also fast.

The Ontario provincial switch to vote counting computers is wrapped with PR about technology, but it’s actually about staffing.  (The underlying concept is literally called "Proposal for a technology-enabled staffing model for Ontario Provincial Elections".)  Basically it’s hard to get people to staff elections now, and they’re tired by the end of the day which means they are sometimes not in the best shape to do a bunch of precise counting.  There are many many ways to address elections staffing.  For example, you could simply bring in people, e.g. High School students, to do the count at the end of the day.

Addressing a staffing problem by completely changing the counting trust model wouldn’t have been my choice.  And I would assert that the only reason it’s even possible is because people don’t realise the trust model has been radically changed.

In any case, online voting is a much much worse problem that vote counting computers, so this is about all I have to say about the vote tabulators issue.

May 11, 2018  2018 Ontario Provincial Election to use vote counting computers

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