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The Continuing Saga of Sarasota’s Lost Votes PDF  | Print |  Email
By Dan Wallach, Rice University   
February 09, 2008

This article was posted at Ed Felten's Freedom To Tinker Blog and is reposted here with permission of the author.


At a hearing today before a subcommittee of Congress’s Committee on House Administration, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported on the results of their technical investigation into the exceptional undervote rate in the November 2006 election for Florida’s 13th Congressional District.


David Dill and I wrote a long paper about shortcomings in previous investigations, so I’m not going to present a detailed review of the history of this case. [Disclosure: Dill and I were both expert witnesses on behalf of Jennings and the other plaintiffs in the Jennings v. Buchanan case. Writing this blog post, I’m only speaking on my own. I do not speak on behalf of Christine Jennings or anybody else involved with the campaign.]


Heavily abridged history: One in seven votes recorded on Sarasota’s ES&S iVotronic systems in the Congressional race were blank. The margin of victory was radically smaller than this. If you attempt to do a statistical projection from the votes that were cast onto the blank votes, then you inevitably end up with a different candidate seated in Congress.


While I’m not a lawyer, my understanding of Florida election law is that the summary screen, displayed before the voter casts a vote, is what really matters. If the summary screen showed no vote in the race and the voter missed it before casting the ballot, then that’s tough luck for them. If, however, the proper thing was displayed on the summary screen and things went wrong afterward, then there would be a legal basis under Florida law to reverse the election.


Florida’s court system never got far enough to make this call. The judge refused to even allow the plaintiffs access to the machines in order to conduct their own investigation. Consequently, Jennings took her case directly to Congress, which has the power to seat its own members. The last time this particular mechanism was used to overturn an election was in 1985. It’s unclear exactly what standard Congress must use when making a decision like this. Should they use Florida’s standard? Should they impose their own standard? Good question.


Okay, then. On to the GAO’s report. GAO did three tests:

  1. They sampled the machines to make sure the firmware that was inside the machines was the firmware that was supposed to be there. They also “witnessed” the source code being compiled and yielding the same thing as the firmware being used. Nothing surprising was found.
  2. They cast a number of test ballots. Everything worked.
  3. They deliberately miscalibrated some iVotronic systems in a variety of different ways and cast some more test votes. They found the machines were “difficult to use”, but that the summary screens were accurate with respect to the voter’s selections.

What they didn’t do:

  • They didn’t conduct any controlled human subject tests to cast simulated votes. Such a test, while difficult and expensive to perform, would allow us to quantify the extent to which voters are confused by different aspects of the voting system’s user interface.
  • They didn’t examine any of the warehoused machines for evidence of miscalibration. They speculate that grossly miscalibrated machines would have been detected in the field and would have been either recalibrated or taken out of service. They suggest that two such machines were, in fact, taken out of service.
  • They didn’t go through any of ES&S’s internal change logs or trouble tickets. If ES&S knows more, internally, about what may have caused this problem, they’re not saying and GAO was unable to learn more.
  • For the tests that they did conduct, GAO didn’t describe enough about the test setup and execution for us to make a reasonable critique of whether their test setup was done properly.

GAO’s conclusions are actually rather mild. All they’re saying is that they have some confidence that the machines in the field were running the correct software, and that the software doesn’t seem to induce failures. GAO has no opinion on whether poor human factors played a factor, nor do they offer any opinion on what the legal implications of poor human factors would be in terms of who should have won the race. Absent any sort of “smoking gun” (and, yes, 18,000 undervotes apparently didn’t make quite enough smoke on their own), it would seem unlikely that the Committee on House Administration would vote to overturn the election.


Meanwhile, you can expect ES&S and others to use the GAO report as some sort of vindication of the iVotronic, in specific, or of paperless DRE voting systems, in general. Don’t buy it. Even if Sarasota’s extreme undervote rate wasn’t itself sufficient to throw out this specific election result, it still represents compelling evidence that the voting system, as a whole, substantially failed to capture the intent of Sarasota’s voters. Finally, the extreme effort invested by Sarasota County, the State of Florida, and the GAO demonstrates the fundamental problem with the current generation of paperless DRE voting systems: when problems occur, it’s exceptionally difficult to diagnose them. There simply isn’t enough information left behind to determine what really happened during the election.


Other articles on today’s news: CNet News, Bradeton Herald, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, NetworkWorld, Miami Herald (AP wire story), VoteTrustUSA

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