Looking at some ballot scanning issues

The town of Windham, New Hampshire, became the site of a controversy when the results of a ballot recount by hand didn’t match the original results. This has some interesting implications for ballot scanning and errors in the process, so I think it’s fair game for this blog. I’ll have to get into the politics to give it context, though.

The four winning candidates for the state legislature were found to have gotten about 300 additional votes each, while the one who requested the recount got fewer, so the results weren’t affected. Still, it was appropriate to ask why the scanners’ total was so far off. The town accordingly had an audit conducted.

New Hampshire doesn’t use “voting machines” in the usual sense of the word. Voters use paper ballots and fill in an oval with a marker to indicate their choice. Some localities count the ballots by hand; many use AccuVote optical reading and counting machines.

The currently favored theory is that many ballots had a fold on one of the ovals, creating a shadow which the machines read as a vote. This happened because of another machine that had been used to fold mail-in ballots. The machine was borrowed from the Department of Motor Vehicles and wasn’t specifically designed for elections; it was just a generic paper-folding machine. Unfortunately, either no one noticed that ballots were being folded on a vote oval or the possible consequences didn’t occur to anyone.

The moral, from a file-format standpoint, is that scanning isn’t foolproof. This isn’t news to anyone who’s worked with it. OCR can introduce spelling errors. Stray marks can interfere with a document’s alignment.

There’s a real issue with those readers, though. They’re ancient. New Hampshire has only one currently approved type of ballot scanner, the one from AccuVote. It runs Windows XP. It is never (we hope) connected to the Internet, so that’s not quite as scary as it sounds, but it’s still an operating system which hasn’t been supported in years. It uses thumb drives to carry information, so that’s a potential vulnerability. The machines aren’t even being made anymore.

The reason they haven’t been replaced has to do with the trend of operating systems, especially Windows, to grow more complicated and less reliable:

It turns out, however, that updating a 1990s technology can be hard because so many other things have been developed around it, which is why the state has not chosen a successor technology.

“After reviewing the products of those machines, they are quite involved, to the point that there is not a replacement that we can go out and approve and put into service that is like the (one) we use now,” said Dave Scalan, New Hampshire’s Deputy Secretary of State.

I’d think that the right approach would be to build something on a Linux kernel and utterly get rid of Windows. The current version of Windows won’t even run without an Internet connection, will it? It sounds like an excellent business opportunity if no one has done it. True voting machines have had the same problem.

Researching this article showed me how extensive the network of lies about this minor election is. Donald Trump declared that “massive Election Fraud” took place. Some pieces claim that Windham uses Dominion voting machines, building on their earlier smear campaign against Dominion. A more plausible claim I’ve seen is that the machines use Dominion “intellectual property” (software?); I haven’t found a reliable source on whether that’s true or false. Even if it’s true, it means any attempted rigging by Dominion was set up over a decade ago (and failed)!

But getting back to the tech point: Even “dumb” technology in elections, such as ballot scanning, has its points of failure. With the unprecedented amount of mail-in voting in the 2020 election, it’s not surprising that some of them came out. You don’t have to believe Trump’s fantasies to recognize that the voting system has weak points that need fixing.

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