“But, but…”

Many people I’ve talked to about using a Vote Word, have thoughtfully challenged me with questions like the following. Some of these same questions may have occurred to you:

What if I completely trust electronic voting booths and I don’t want to look at my Vote Word?

Then don’t. You just vote as you always have. Little has changed inside that voting booth.

What modifications are necessary in an electronic voting booth?

A software change and the addition, if necessary, of an LCD or LED that can display your Vote Word. No printers, scanners or “Smart cards” are necessary.

What if I forget my Vote Word?

First of all, it’s a short word in your native language. But if you cannot remember it, then you probably will want to write it on a piece of paper and keep it with you until you can get to a computer to audit your vote.

What happens if I check the Web and find that my vote was recorded incorrectly?

So far, electronic voting booths have been quite accurate, but if a problem were to occur, you would report the error. The election authorities would wait to see if a number of other people also report a problem. If there are just a few reports of problems out of hundreds or thousands of votes cast, then election authorities will likely feel justified that it is a case of “user error”. But if a number of voters report a problem, then two things will probably take place: (1) an investigation into the process or the software to determine what happened and (2) a re-vote.

What if someone tries to help the losing candidate by falsely reporting a problem?

This is a self-correcting problem. Here’s what would happen if someone was so disappointed that Sally Smith lost to John Jones that he tried to cheat. (As described above, if just a few people report that their Vote Word is wrong, then the election authorities would likely ascribe this to “probable user error”). Let’s say a very disappointed – and dishonest – Sally Smith supporter called all his friends and got them to report that their Vote Word incorrectly shows that they voted for John Jones. To do this, these cheaters would have to use someone else’s published Vote Word. When they tell their “problem” to the election office, the officials will then post those alleged Vote Words in a public forum, like the Web.

At this point, the voters who actually were issued those Vote Words will be able to see that someone is claiming their Vote Word as their own and would begin to lodge their protests with the election authorities. In other words, what we would have is a very public dispute about just whose Vote Words are out there. The election authorities would then make the decision as to whether they need to examine the software and the polling place where the alleged problem occurred. If they feel that there’s probable cause to audit the equipment and processes at that voting location, then they would descend on that polling place and begin their investigation.

Is this perfect? Of course not. The very best solution in a perfect world would be if everyone got a paper receipt when they voted. In this perfect world, printers would never jam or run out of ink, tax-payers wouldn’t mind paying for the extra hardware, voters wouldn’t mind the longer lines waiting or the longer time in the voting booth and no one would try to sell their vote. And most important: in this perfect world, if the voting authorities decide on a recount, then everyone would keep their receipt and would turn it in to the voting authorities.

What if the “true owners” of those Vote Words don’t step forward to dispute the Sally Smith gang (in the previous question)?

Interesting point, and it brings up the fact that this Vote Word idea places the responsibility on the voter. Not only do we have a responsibility to vote, but we also have the responsibility to stay informed. If a cabal of Sally Smith supporters tries to reverse an election by falsely reporting incorrect Vote Words, then the news media are certainly going to be reporting this. At that point, when the disputed Vote Words are published in the newspapers, there will be a process in place whereby you will be able to report in confidence that you, in fact, were issued that Vote Word. So if a gang of, say, 30 Sally Smith supporters tries to overturn an election, then it’s realistic to envision that about 5 or 10 of the real Vote Word holders will step up to discredit them.

It’s worth thinking about how likely this whole scenario is. First, imagine 30 people getting together to claim other people’s Vote Words – and every single one of these 30 people risking jail time to do it. Second, it has to be in an election where 30 votes is the deciding margin. Finally, these 30 people risk everything in the assumption that when this story hits the news media, no one will challenge them.

“If it can happen, it will happen”, you say. And I would answer that you’re right – which is why Vote Word addresses that scenario. But I also think that if we go down the path of trying to methodically tie every vote to a voter, or send the voter home with a printed slip of paper, then the balance has been tipped: we will be abandoning personal responsibility. We will be deluding ourselves thinking that we can eliminate dishonesty and incompetence by traveling down the path of extremely restrictive and complex voting systems. If, instead, we say “Let the voters audit their own darn vote”, then we’ve returned to a more public, transparent system. And a simpler one.

What about “vote selling”?

This is a real concern. In fact, some states have passed laws that say that it is prohibited to implement and use any voting device that permits a voter to prove who he/she voted for. Why? If voters can prove who they voted for, then they are able to sell their vote to the highest bidder.

You would think that – because the Vote Word is displayed only – there’s no way you can definitively prove who you voted for. That’s pretty much true. But someone recently described for me the following scenario. Let’s say Joe Slime, a local contractor, has the money – and ruthless resolve – to try to buy an election. He could, in theory, call a number of
people before the election and offer them $100 for their vote. Then he could send his minions to wait outside the polling place and accost those voters as they exit the polling place. These bad guys could demand to know the Vote Word as proof that the voter delivered. The idea is that the voter would have no way of yet knowing the Vote Word, so there’s no chance of making one up. (Of course, since Vote Words are such common words, the voter could guess at one. But the theory here is that the voter is in cahoots with the bad guys). So the voter must be telling the truth and is therefore able to collect his $100.

Is there a simple way to stop that? Sure: all you have to do is display Vote Words in the polling place. This completely erases the credibility of anyone walking out of the polling place and saying, “My Vote Word is ‘mud’ and I voted for you”, because they easily could have chosen one before exiting.

This is fascinating to me: once again more transparency – not less – solves the problem.

And here’s another thought on vote selling. We’re right to make it as difficult as possible to buy or sell votes. But there are already easier ways to buy votes than post your minions outside the polling place. I’m sure someone has brought a digital camera into a polling booth – the kind of camera that can shoot video. All you have to do is email your video to Joe Slime and you can collect your $100. People may well be doing that now – but I sure would hate to see voters have to go through metal detectors and be patted down before voting.

Okay, how about the simple case where some corrupt official simply adds 100 votes to a candidate’s total – and uses perfectly good Vote Words?

Luckily, election officials have figured this out already. You may have noticed when you go to vote that the poll workers keep a very tightly controlled count of how many voters walk into the booths. In our town (in NJ) they use serialized slips of paper which they relate back to the sign-in sheets. However this is accomplished, the intent is the same: the total number of people accounted for must equal (or be very, very close to) the total number of votes cast. So if Sally Smith beats John Jones 600 to 400, then the paper record (yes: paper!) showing how many people signed to vote must be 1,000.

Just how many Vote Words do you need in the entire United States?

Anywhere from 5,000 to 8,000.

Say what??? More than 100 million people voted in 2004.

Remember, we can give out the same word, like “house” at every voting location in the country. If “house” is your Vote Word, you look it up only where you voted.

But surely there are voting locations where more than 8,000 might show up. What happens when you run out of words?

The software is designed to start issuing “word pairs” once words are exhausted. Using this method, the total number of Vote Words that can be issued in a single location goes from 8,000 to 64,000,000 (That’s 8,000 squared).

So why are state governments considering the purchase of electronic voting booths that have receipt printers? Isn’t that an expensive solution?

Yes, voting booths that supply a paper receipt for the voter are very expensive – they’re expensive to purchase, expensive to operate, expensive to maintain and expensive to replace when the mechanical printers break. Worse than that, though, is the fact that even if a polling location performs a re-count with paper ballot back-ups, the voters still have no idea whether their vote was included in the re-count or whether their vote was recorded correctly.

Then why are state governments headed down that road?

To be fair, they’re doing it for good reasons The main purpose for a “Voter-verified Paper Trail” (VVPT) – sometimes called “Voter-verified Paper Ballot” – is so that a polling place has something to re-count if the electronic machines die. But, as mentioned above, a re-count performed with paper ballots is still not a transparent process: how do know that your vote was re-counted?

So is the idea of a “Voter-verified paper ballot” completely without merit?

Actually, no – if it’s married to Vote Word. That is, if your Vote Word is printed on the paper ballot (and that paper is required to remain at the polling location) then you would have an airtight system. Overpriced – but airtight. That way, if they do have to perform a re-count, your Vote Word would get re-entered into the computer, along with your vote. Then you could go to the Web to make sure that the re-count was performed correctly.