(… and how to make the process better.)
Counting votes is one of the most difficult tasks to do considering the amount of incentive there is to manipulate and control the count.
A very interesting movie titled “The Battle of Athens” documents a true story that took place in 1946 where local vets had to resort to violence to uncover the truth of how the votes were really counted in their county in Tennessee.
In the wake of the 2020 presidential election and all the controversy over counting votes in that election and considering my experience as an election judge way back in the early 90s, I became curious as to how our votes are counted here in Idaho County.
Title 34 of the Idaho Code covers the process of elections. It is long and complex and I could not easily find anything in it that requires rechecking or proving the correctness of vote counts by either machine or by manual counting. This very much bothers me.
Title 34-304 gives the guidelines for observers of an election. An observer must have a letter sent from either a candidate or the Republican or Democratic party 12 days before the election to be allowed to observe the counting of ballots. Thus, by law, the observation of ballot counting is a closed affair.
Magicians do much of their magic by distraction. This is what I am seeing happening in our elections. My experience in King County, in the state of Washington back in the early 90s was a perfect example of this. As an election judge I sat at the polls all day watching the ballot box get stuffed with ballots by voters. All was in order. At the end of the day the ballots were locked up in a box with a soldier carrying an assault rifle to guard the box. I was allowed to travel with the box and the soldier in an armored car to the county HQ where the ballots would be counted. I was allowed to watch the ballot box unlocked and the ballots placed into a bag. All was in order. Then came the switch. The bag of ballots was then thrown over a Plexiglas wall to be counted by some mysterious process.
That was it. I was done. “You can go home now.”
WAIT A MINUTE!
How do I know they were counted correctly? How is this verifying ANYTHING?
I felt that the process up to that point was all just a distraction!
So I was wondering how I could witness the vote counting in Idaho County. Finally, during this primary in 2022 I had the opportunity through Priscilla Giddings’s campaign to be allowed to watch what happens behind that Plexiglas wall I hit back in the 1990s.
The day before the polls were to open (Monday, May 16th, 2022) I went to a demonstration of the counting machine, by the county clerk, Miss Kathy Ackerman. The machine was an ESS Model DS450.
The machine is computer controlled and resembles a fancy copying machine. An uninterruptable power supply is used to prevent loss during counting. Access to all ports is locked during counting and there is only a power connection to the wall. The ballots are counted and sorted into different trays depending on the scan. Problem ballots can be re-inserted to try again. Write-ins are separated out for manual counting on those particular votes.
The machine is certified by the Secretary of State and the manufacturer.
Hey, isn’t the Secretary of State on the ballot this election? Is there a conflict of interest here? I would say so. Trusting the wolves to guard the henhouse does not sound like a smart business practice to me.
20-40 years ago it was unimaginable that a simple ballot scanner or voting machine could be externally tampered with or rigged to count votes wrong. That was before the internet, WiFi, 5g, 1000s of satellites in low orbit, smart-dust, computer viruses, rogue chips, and all the other plagues we now face from technology gone crazy.
The County Clerk seemed to me to be unappreciative of today’s technology and how powerful it has become. For example, in the Intel CPU family there is an interesting feature known as WiDi where the CPU chip, all by itself, can transmit display and sound information wirelessly and all a user needs to do is purchase the appropriate radio receiving equipment to display the screen and hear the audio remotely without wires.
This is public information. Could there be a secret receiver on the chip or hardware somewhere that could receive information as well? It simply is impossible to know for sure. Unless you put the entire counting machine in a faraday cage and monitor the entire frequency spectrum with an RF spectrometer during counting, there simply is no way to prove the machine could not be tampered with or monitored.
The documentation that the clerk gave me assured me that the machine had no modems. Modems are basically a D/A converter used to transmit data over phone lines. This does not guarantee that there aren’t wireless circuits that could do the same thing without a modem, unknown to even the designer of the hardware. Heck the government makes RFID and nano-bots with 5G capabilities that are smaller than the thickness of a human hair and can talk to satellites in orbit. This is not Kansas anymore Dorothy!
Normally they test the machine with a test deck supplied by the manufacturer but I said, how do we know that the test deck isn’t rigged in order to program the machine to make an un-hacked count? So, in response to this point, the clerk made up a random test deck of her own. They counted the deck by hand and by machine and they came up differently.
They came up differently. Hmmm.
Upon further investigation the clerk found that two ballots were marked in such a way that the machine would interpret the votes one way while a manual count would reveal that the voter intent was different than the machine thought. This results when a voter doesn’t follow the instructions on the ballot properly, which the clerk admitted, happens a lot.
There was no look of shock or surprise on her face. Mystery solved.
She also discovered that if you draw vertical lines through the bubbles on the ballot you get a hit-or-miss situation depending on how close to the center of the bubble the vertical line is. The counting machine doesn’t seem to care what kind of mark is in the bubbles and will not flag ballots marked with Xs or lines.
I really have no problem with electronic counting of ballots IF there are ways to validate the counts or to recheck them easily. But this is not how it is done. Ballots that are counted by hand at the precinct are then sealed and thrown into a vault, never to be seen unless an official recount is needed. There is no machine check on hand counts. Ballots that are counted by machine at the county HQ are not counted by hand again. There is no hand check on the machine counts. They are then sealed and thrown into the same vault. There are a few test checks here and there before the counting begins but no second count is done, even on a subset of the ballots, to verify the machine or hand counts. Even just shuffling the deck of ballots and doing a second machine count or having a second counting machine from a different manufacturer to verify the first machine would be an improvement
There are some accounting procedures done to ensure that ballots don’t appear or disappear but the ballots are all identical for each precinct. They are not numbered or distinguishable in any way.
I asked the clerk to make a Xerox copy of a ballot and try running it through the machine. It was accepted as real by the machine even though it wasn’t on the same kind of paper as the real ballots were. Thus, counterfeiting ballots is quite easy to do.
The next day I watched the polls all day and then went to the county HQ to watch the actual counting. At last, I will learn the mysteries of ballot counting!
I must say here that the clerk and her crew were very professional and efficient and let me see just about anything I wanted to see. I could not see anything that resembled any kind of bias or attempts to change the results in any way. I think we are lucky to live in a rural area and, though every county is corrupt in my experience, Idaho County seems to have been spared the crazy issues found in more dense areas and counties.
If a ballot can’t be machine scanned, a duplicate ballot is created which is done using a standard voting machine. The ballot that the voting machine creates is then fed into the DS450 and is added to the total count.
I noticed that the ballot created by the voting machine has the ballot printed in two parts. One part is human readable and the other is machine readable. There was no check done to ensure that the machine readable part matched the human readable. Without detailed technical knowledge about the voting machine, there simply is no easy way to know that what the counter reads is what the human readable part says unless you run an entire count on just that one ballot – a situation where fancy code to manipulate the result would not likely show up.
The absentee ballots were counted first and were more difficult for the DS450 to count due to folds and bits of tape occasionally put onto the ballots that prevented the reader from accepting the ballot. If you want to completely screw up the counting process just tear, fold, and gum up your ballot and add a write-in and the DS450 will prove to be useless.
But please don’t do this as the county clerk’s job will be made ridiculously difficult and it might be days before the election results appear!
I also learned that even write-in candidates must get their names on a list of approved write-ins (Idaho Code Title 34 Section 702A). This is so that Mickey Mouse won’t win every seat – it’s a conspiracy I tell you!!! If you write in a name that is not on the list, your vote will not be counted on that race.
The clerk informed me that the ESS Model DS450 cost around $50,000 and was paid for by the state.
Suggested Improvements and ideas:
Technology should be used to improve transparency and accuracy but not necessarily for convenience or efficiency. The more convenience we add, the less vigilant we become.
In general, it would be good to make it so that every record from the ballot to final report is done in a single form that is both human and computer readable. This way, human confirmation can easily be done as well as easy and error free transmission to other systems.
This is why I am against absentee ballots and early voting – it just introduces a huge problem that requires a lot of work to keep the process integrity intact. It is very sad to me that we add complications to the election process for convenience but won’t add complications to guarantee the integrity of the process.
Ballots for machine counting are not designed for easy manual counting. For example, here is a portion of a sample ballot I found online:
Here is how I would modify it:
In fact, I would get rid of a middle column and have all the boxes along the edges for easier counting. I would make the tally sheets line up with the boxes on the edges with the same numbers as are in the boxes so that one could see the number in the box and easily tally the correct row of the tally sheet.
How it is done now is one person reads the ballot out loud and two others simultaniously tally the votes. Each tallyer calls out when they hit a 5th vote. This is a pretty good method but with the modifications I propose, a single person could do the count and that would gain the time needed for 1 or 2 re-counts to be done in the same amount of time as the old method. Adding redundancy to the counting process like this helps spot errors and brings more eyes to the process.
The counting machines are a powerful computer in their own right and should be utilized to the maximum extent to automate processes that support verification and integrity.
The DS450 can only output results with a printer. This forces a manual process to transfer the results from the counting machine to other computer systems. The clerk pointed out to me that the larger ESS models do have electronic ways to transfer the results. I do not know, however, if those formats are human readable.
Here is a sample of the DS450’s printed output:
Note that there is no running count or details that could be used to prove that the sum of the votes is correct or to check if a single ballot was read correctly or not.
If the clerk accidently re-fed a pile of ballots into the DS450 it would double count those votes and not notice a thing wrong. Only an adept clerk might catch this later when reconciling ballot counts and then an entire recount of the precinct ballots, which are all identical, would be needed. It would be impossible to discover which ballots were counted twice.
By designing an area of a ballot for the counting machine to print on, a simple string that shows exactly the count for that ballot that is human readable could be constructed:
Above we see two lines to show which box (with my proposed changes to the ballot format) the mark was associated with and the bottom line shows whether or not the bubble was counted as filled in.
Another, more easy way to do it for human checking would be for the counting machine to circle each bubble in a special color. However, the method used must clearly show that the ballot was scanned only once.
This information could also be used to more easily count the ballots manually and to check a subset of ballots to make sure the machine is scanning the ballots correctly.
The counting machine could note this printing and avoid double counting a ballot, but the more you trust the machine to do the right thing, the more a hack can skew the election. Human, manual checking of the machine is absolutely necessary to eliminate the possibility of hacking the counting machine. Multiptle humans must also be used cuz you can’t trust them either.
If the ballots could be numbered, a lot of good things could be done like:
The one big downside of numbered ballots is the possibility that they could be used to know who voted how. I have been trying to come up with a way to print the ballots with a concealed number and at some point the voter and/or the counting machines could reveal the number long after the ballot left the hands of the voter. It could be done but I have not come up with a process that wouldn’t introduce other problems. Scratch-n-sniff is cool till you have to scratch thousands of ballots. However, I think solving this will really improve election integrity.
We could have the counting machine number the ballots but adding a number at this point removes a lot of the benefits of having the number. It would, however solve the double counting problem I mentioned above.
Since the counting machine must scan each ballot, why not include the scan of each ballot and the counting machine’s printed interpretation of the ballot into image files which can then be offloaded onto a thumb drive and published on the internet? The counting machine could also generate tally sheets. Imagine ANYBODY being able to count any of the ballots themselves and check the counting machine online without having to compromise the integrity of the archived ballots? Now that’s transparency!
I discussed this idea with the clerk and she made a good point that this creates a way for almost anybody to raise doubts and challenge the election process. Even though a voter could check that their ballot was counted correctly and the ballot was not tampered with, there is no way that this kind of discovery could be used to question the count unless many voters complained of tampering. It could create a mountain of work to accept voter feedback like this. Yet still, this would let voters know that something was wrong or not wrong with the process and a simple website could automate the feedback process. It would force a certain level of integrity on the system due to its transparency. The media could not simply declare that “this was the most secure election in history” without some blowback.
All this doesn’t even consider the issues involved with early voting and absentee ballots.
If every 10th voter at the precinct had to come in for a couple of hours to count ballots or a kind of counting jury duty were created, we would have plenty of people to hand count the ballots and check each other’s work. Ballots could be broken down in to packs of say 25-100 ballots each and counted multiple times by multiple people, each signing and certifying their counts. Ballots, tally sheets and summary spreadsheets could then be sent electronically to the next level up and published online both locally and centrally. Heck, election judges could take a copy of all the data on a thumb drive home for safe keeping, just in case there was a fire or some other disaster that caused the archives to be lost or come into question.
I mentioned this idea to the clerk as well and she has considered it. The downside is that the clerk has trained a crack crew of assistants that do this well. We wouldn’t want people that don’t want to do counting doing that job nor would we want to have some bum off the street doing it that didn’t know or care about what they were doing or worse, was out to throw things off.
However, we need a system that doesn’t need highly trained and high integrety volunteers to work. We need a system where even a 4th grader could count the votes and any errors are caught regardless of their skill level or intentions. Rudundancy, transparentcy and cross-checking are simply required to make such a system work.
The clerk pointed out to me that Idaho County has enough volunteers right now so that the current system of counting is working well. Other counties, however, may have problems getting enough people to participate in the election process to get sufficient oversight and help.
Incidentally, I discovered that the Kooskia precinct has the most voters voting of all the precincts in Idaho County! Interesting.
Precinct hand counts would rapidly add up the counts to come up with results probably faster than we get with all this machine counting. The community comes together as more people get involved and see the integrity of the system which would encourage more people to vote and remove the need for early voting and absentee ballots.
It amazes me that the photo at the top of this article is NOT the way we count our votes. Idaho County is actually a relatively safe county for vote counting. Several precincts still count the ballots by hand.
The clerk mentioned that decades ago, when everybody knew everybody, doing a public count with a pot-luck was cool and fun but those days are gone and there are just too many strangers around that we can’t trust at that level.
But such thinking admits that trust in the people that do the process is necessary. I say, if you have a good, redundant, transparent, cross-checked, accountable and machine assisted count, you don’t need highly skilled or trusted people to do this extremely important job.
I think it would be great to see Miss Betsy’s 4th grade class be able to count the ballots. Counting ballots is not easy but impressing on our children the importance of doing such a job to protect our democratic system is very important.
It amazes me how little people seem to care about who and how the votes are counted. This is the core of representative government and it must be kept sacred and secure and transparent at all times for our freedoms to survive.
I hope this article has demystified the issue a bit for the average Joe and that it will spur improvements to the system. The best thing you can do to help here is to contact your county clerk and offer to become a volunteer election judge and counter. Get yourself trained and step up to be a part of the solution. That’s what I did and it was a real eye-opener and made me feel good about doing what I could to help.