President Obama mentioned last night that we need to fix the voting system. Yes, definitely.
Fortunately, making our voting system work better isn't hard, we just need to look to people who've spent the time to figure it out. Congress hasn't spent the time to research it. Neither have voting machine companies, who simply want to sell their products to a captive market.
California Secretary of State Debra Bowen won the Kennedy award a few years back for her incredible work in figuring out how to fix the modern broken voting system. At the time, California was much like many states, with horrible electronic voting machines that have unverifiable and buggy software, bad user interfaces that sometimes don't work, and high expense and limited support which makes it hard to put out a lot of them to handle high voter turnout.
What did she do? She began by starting the California "top to bottom review" of voting systems. As we all know, many popular electronic voting systems are fundamentally flawed. Unfortunately, many of the results came from the outside, and were both narrow and not taken seriously within government. Bowen commissioned a study of California's voting machines to be conducted by actual computer security experts (led by two highly respected University of California computer science professors). When she began this study, there was plenty of complaint from the usual quarters (especially the voting machine vendors) about how it was paranoia to worry about broken electronic voting machines and how counties should keep using broken machines since they had already overpaid for them.
The results were both groundbreaking and what we would expect - all three electronic voting systems in California were fatally flawed (a single voter could create a virus to compromise an entire state-wide election, among other problems). Bowen decertified all the machines and returned us to optical-scan paper ballots, and has led other secretaries of state across the nation to re-examine their voting systems. She was awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award for her work on voting reform.
So, what's the answer? It's actually remarkably simple:
- Optical-scan paper ballots that can be filled out using an ordinary black pen. This makes fraud hard, is inexpensive, doesn’t require (limited-in-number) machines that then cause lines to grow long.
- Mandatory random hand recount of 1% of ballots, followed by increasing fractions for close races.
- Optionally, a limited number of electronic voting machines that print optical scan ballots for those who have bad eyesight.
Really, that's it. There are of course policy issues regarding early voting, and the like, but the actual machinery of the voting itself is straightforward, and we just need to apply the learned wisdom of Sec. Bowen and her team across the country.
If you want to learn more about how to fix the voting system, please listen to Debra Bowen's brilliant talk, Dr. Strangevote or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Paper Ballot. Her talk is a bit wonky but is filled with information, and when I first heard it a few years back I really felt like I got a grasp of what the challenges are and how the solution is actually simple.