‘Vote Flipping’ Is Real, but Its Cause Is the Subject of Debate

Some blame machines; others say it’s voter error

Before and during last week’s midterm elections, reports emerged that “vote flipping” — where a voter selects a candidate using e-voting hardware and the machine counts the vote for another candidate — had occurred in some states.

For example, voters in both Broward and nearby Miami-Dade County in Florida had complained of vote flipping during early voting, though local elections officials assured the public that no votes were changed.

Dan Wallach, associate professor of computer science, Rice University

Dan Wallach, associate professor of computer science, Rice UniversitySuch problems have been reported in U.S. elections since 2004, when states started a push to use electronic voting machines. The goal of e-voting was to improve the accuracy of elections. Instead, for many voters, the change has prompted suspicions that votes aren’t being correctly counted.

Despite e-voting critics’ fears that vote flipping is caused by flaws in the machines, others say that such problems can be caused by user error, machine calibration problems or other factors.

Stanford University computer science professor David L. Dill, who founded the nonprofit Verified Voting Foundation and VerifiedVoting.org, both based in San Francisco, last week called for investigations to determine the cause of vote-flipping incidents.

“People have been way too quick to diagnose the problem,” Dill said. “It could be a calibration problem with touch screens, but I’m not sure that anyone really knows because no one’s looked at it. I want facts ... and all I’ve heard for two years is speculation.”

Dill rejected one theory: that the problem is a conspiracy to defraud voters of their votes and give the election to the opposition. Once a voter picks a candidate, a review screen shows who they voted for. “It seems to me if you were trying to commit fraud, you wouldn’t show [the ballot] to the voter,” he said.

Dill said the problem could be caused by voter error, perhaps by accidentally touching a screen and erroneously making a selection. He suggested that a panel of experts be formed to investigate the issue and determine how to fix any problems and get fixes to voting officials.

Contributing Factors

Ted Selker, co-director of the Voting Technology Project being conducted by the California Institute of Technology and MIT, has one explanation for such incidents: sloppy voters. Experiments by the researchers have found that voters incorrectly choose a candidate on their ballots one in 30 times, even under laboratory settings. “People are just sloppy and make mistakes,” Selker said.

Though voters may believe such problems are caused by e-voting machines, Selker said the actual cause may be simply how voters use e-voting hardware. For example, he said voters often try to drag a finger across a selection on touch screens that are designed for tapping. “Vote flipping is a user-interface problem,” not a technical flaw, he said.

Machine calibration can be a problem because the units are sensitive to inputs based on a user’s height and other factors, he said. Better machine designs and simpler voter-selection processes would help fix any problems, said Selker, an associate professor of media arts and sciences at MIT who has done extensive research on product design and human interfaces.

Avi Rubin, a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and director of ACCURATE, an election research center, said the only way to be safe from vote flipping is to have paper records of every ballot cast. “My big worry is that we cannot ever say conclusively whether or not it happens” as a result of software glitches, tainted code, machine rigging or other tampering if there is no paper record, he said.

Paper records also allow recounts in the case of a disputed result, Rubin noted, adding that “without them, recounts are impossible.”

Dan Wallach, an associate professor of computer science at Rice University and an associate director of ACCURATE, said vote flipping has been a recurrent problem in recent elections but shouldn’t be blamed on electronic voting machines. He blamed the problem mostly on calibration issues.

“The fundamental problem with any touch screen is that calibration matters, angle of touch matters,” Wallach said. Different people even use different parts of their fingers to touch the screens, he said. The only way to fix the problem, he suggested, is to increase the size of candidate selection buttons and place them farther apart on the screen, so “if you miss one button, you’re not likely to touch another one.”

A spokeswoman for e-voting machine vendor Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. said vote flipping is caused by human or procedural error, not by e-voting machines. “Sometimes the machines need to be calibrated or recalibrated,” she said. “Machines in and of themselves do not flip votes.”

E-voting machines are far more secure, accurate and auditable than the mechanical lever-operated voting machines and other systems they replaced, the spokeswoman contended. She called vote-flipping concerns a “conspiracy theory from activists and bloggers.”

A spokesman at e-voting equipment vendor Diebold Election Systems also said that e-voting machines don’t cause vote flipping. “It’s not a problem,” he said. “It doesn’t exist. This again falls into the ‘what if’ scenario.”

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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