Distrust in the U.S. voting process and the presidential election has reached an all-time high, with many concerned their ballots won’t be counted. Voters can rest easy, though, when it comes to voting technology. Ballot errors are almost non-existent, said the CEO of voting system builder Clear Ballot.
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Clear Ballot, a venture-backed company in Boston, builds an end-to-end voting system that includes precinct voting, accessible voting to serve disabled voters, central tabulation, consolidation and reporting, and an election management system, all using commodity off-the-shelf hardware. Most voting systems are built using proprietary hardware and software platforms. Because the voting system relies on commodity hardware, acquiring and setting up a ballot verification system is straightforward.
Since 2013, Clear Ballot has verified 5 million ballots across the country during voting audits. Clear Ballot’s software in combination with commodity hardware is a parallel ballot tabulation system that recounts ballots using algorithms written independently by Clear Ballot. Asked about his experience with voting error, Clear Ballot CEO Larry Moore said:
“Ballot errors are less than a tenth of a percent. Voter intent can be troublesome, but can usually be resolved by officials looking at the image of the ballot. Much larger errors are introduced by the manual transcription, and roll-up of precinct votes, that are always reported as unofficial until verified after the election.”
Asked about the controversy creating distrust in this presidential election, Moore quoted Christopher Hitchens and said:
“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
Ballot error most often occurs due to the design limitations of optical scanning by certified voting systems that are used in 80 percent of the elections. These systems count marks inside the ovals very well. They are not precise enough to assess voter intent when ballots are not clearly marked, however. In close races, trying to assess voter intent can result in time-consuming, costly and error-prone handcounts to resolve contests. Remember the hanging chads controversy in the 2000 Florida presidential election?
Clear Ballot’s software indexes ambiguous ballots for election judges to assess on a computer screen to determine each voter's intent.
Conditions that affect ballot error rate
I asked Daniel Lopresti, chair of the department of computer science and engineering at Lehigh University, to comment on Moore’s claims because he participates in the PERFECT Project. PERFECT stands for Paper and Electronic Records for Elections: Cultivating Trust. The project is building software tools for reliable paper ballot processing, as well as developing frameworks for large-scale ballot studies: examining usability issues involving paper ballots and performing reliable and trustworthy recounts of hardcopy election records. PERFECT is partially funded by the National Science Foundation.
Lopresti said Moore’s number was reasonable, but he was careful to point out conditions that could increase the error rate. He cited several instances where weather, humidity and proper maintenance of voting equipment caused higher error rates.
Voters who do not understand how to mark the ballots and correct mistakes also cause errors, which can be corrected in a recount if the voter’s intent can be discerned from the ballot. Also, poor ballot design can confuse voters and lead to a mistake that is hard to discern in a recount.