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How To Increase Voter Turnout With New Technology – The Right Way

eVoting: One of the desired features for new voting mechanisms is that they will increase voter ‘turnout’, encouraging people to vote who are too busy (or too unmotivated) to visit a polling station.

This has been used to suggest internet voting (see the fiasco that was the now-scrapped SERVE project) and voting-by-phone. Both offer a scary number of vote-fixing opportunities and possible failure modes, and are fundamentally a bad idea.

However, it turns out there is a great system to implement absentee voting securely, reliably, conveniently (for the voter) and even cheaply! A comment on Bruce Schneier’s Crypto-Gram newsletter (scroll down to comment number 3) details this.

I’ve copied the entire mail here, since it’s hard to link to in the other location, and is well worth a page to itself:

From: Fred Heutte

Thanks for your cogent thoughts on ballot security. I almost completely agree and was one of the first signers of David Dill’s petition. I am also involved professionally in voter data — from the campaign side, with voter files, not directly with voting equipment — but we’re close enough to the vote counting process to see how it actually works.

I would only disagree slightly in one area. Absentee voting is quite secure when looking at the overall approach and assessing the risks in every part of the process. As long as reasonable precautions like signature checking are done, it would be difficult and expensive to change the results of mail voting significantly.

For example, in Oregon, ballots are returned in an inside security envelope which is sealed by the voter. The outside envelope has a signature area on the back side. This is compared to the voter’s signature on file at the elections office. The larger counties actually do a digitized comparison, and back that up with a manual comparison with a stratified random sample (to validate machine results on an ongoing basis), as well as a final determination for any questionable matches.

Certainly it is possible to forge a signature. However, this authentication process would greatly raise the cost of forged mail ballots, absent consent of the voter. In turn, interference or coercion with absentee voting would require much higher travel costs (at least) than doing so at a polling place, for a given change in the outcome.

It is true that precincts have poll watchers, and absentee voters do not. But consider this. Ballot boxes, which are often delivered by temporary poll workers from the precinct to the elections office, are occasionally stolen, but mail ballots are handled within a vast stream of other mail by employees with paychecks and pensions at stake. The relatively low level of mail fraud inside the postal system is a testament to its relative security, and the points where ballots are aggregated for delivery to the elections office are usually on public property and can also be watched by outside observers if need be.

Oregon has had some elections with 100% ‘vote by mail’ since 1996, and all elections since 1999. So far, no verifiable evidence of voter fraud has emerged, despite many checks and some predictions by those with a political axe to grind that we would be engulfed in a wave of election fixing.

The reality is that Oregon’s system, which is based on some common-sense security principles, has proven to be robust. The one lingering problem has been the need of some counties to make their voters use punch cards at home because of their antiquated vote counting equipment. But while this is a vote integrity issue — since state statistics show a much higher undervote and spoiled ballot total for punch cards as compared to mark-sense ballots — it is not a security issue per se. And with Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funding to convert to more modern vote counting systems, the Oregon chad remains in only one county and will go extinct after 2004.

The mark-sense (‘fill in the ovals’) ballots we have work well, and have low rates of over-votes and under-votes, despite the lack of automated machine checking that is possible in well-designed precinct voting systems. This suggests that reasonable visual design and human-friendly paper and pencil/pen home voting is a very reliable and secure system. When aided by automated counting equipment, we even have the additional benefit of very fast initial counts.

The increase in voter participation in Oregon since the advent of vote-by-mail — 10 to 30 percentage points above national averages, depending on the kind of election — leads to the only other issue, which is slow machine counts on election night after the polls close due to the surge of late ballots received at drop-off locations around the state. Oregon in fact isn’t really ‘vote by mail,’ it’s vote-at-home, with a paper ballot that can be mailed or left at any official drop-off point in the state, including county election offices, many schools and libraries, malls, town squares, etc.

The great advantage of the Oregon system is that it relies on the principle that if you appeal to the best instincts of the citizen, the overwhelming majority will ‘do our part’ to ensure the integrity of the democratic voting process, whether it is full consideration of the candidates and issues before voting, watching to make sure all ballots are securely transferred and counted, or favoring those laws and policies that insure that everyone eligible can vote, that their votes are counted, and that the candidates and measures with the most votes win.

The system is also cheaper than running traditional precinct elections. What’s not to like?

It’s so simple, and so sensible. Next time someone suggests ‘i-voting’ or ‘m-voting’ or whatever, you know what to point to…

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