Counting Votes

This is orthogonal to geospatial, but c’est la vie. Apparently the United States’ quadrennial meltdown over how to count things is firing up again.

A big part of the problem appears to be the de-centralization of the US institutions responsible for conducting elections (in some cases each county gets to decide how to manage the electoral process) and another part is that the people responsible for running elections are themselves elected partisans (the state “secretaries of state”, for example Katherine Harris and Kenneth Blackwell).

Rather than address these structural issues at the root (have elections run by a single federal organization with leadership acceptable to both parties), the USA keeps trying to fix the problem with new and better machines.

For reference, here is how we do it in the civilized world.

British Columbia provincial elections are managed by Elections BC, an independent agency of the government, the head of which is chosen by an all-party committee of the legislature. Federal elections are managed by Elections Canada, ditto.

Each polling station handles a number of polls, each of which has a few hundred people in it. Each poll has its own vote box. Each ballot is numbered, and comes from a book of ballots, so that the number of ballots that end up in a box can be reconciled to the number of voters in a poll, and to the books which were assigned to each poll. The polling stations are staffed by temporary paid workers, two workers to each box, so the box is never unattended. Parties are allowed to have “scrutineers” in the station, who may observe the process. Parties often keep an independent count of how many people have voted, and who has voted (this information is fed back to the central campaign and used to drive get-out-the-vote efforts, by calling known supporters who have not shown up to vote earlier in the day).

Paper ballot in sealed cardboard box. It's that easy

At the end of the day, each box is audibly counted, under the eyes of the scrutineers and the poll supervisor. It takes about an hour to an hour and a half to count all the ballots in a poll. Because the scrutineers are keeping tallies during the count, boxes will sometimes get re-counted if the tallies don’t match.

The effect of having an open process (everyone gets to watch, right down to the individual votes for each poll counts) both increases confidence in the process and the accuracy of the result, because many eyes are working on the problem at once. The poll supervisor reports the totals to his superior in the district, who in turn reports to the central electoral authorities. And the scrutineers independently report the poll numbers to their party headquarters, where they are totaled up to provide the politicians with an early snapshot of the race. Multiple eyes, multiple paths for the data to flow, physical ballots for post-facto processing.

In the event of a really close election, things slow down a lot, because a panel of judges has to sit down in a room and hand-count the complete set of votes for the whole riding. This takes about a week. It’s the difference between parallel processing (each box counted simultaneously on election day) and sequential processing.

The reason such a primitive system can work better than all the fancy US computers is because the standards for things like ballots, handling ballots, counting ballots, box security, etc, are all set and managed centrally, by an independent agency (not an elections equipment vendor). It is basic logistics. Standard processes mandated and followed consistently make logistically difficult problems (like accurately gathering and counting 2 million individually marked ballots) achievable.

Enough with the machines, USA, get a decent organization and return to the pen and paper!