This week I was approached by two different groups seeking to build better voting systems, something I talk about here in my new democracy topic. The discussions quickly got into all the various goals we have for voting systems, and I did some more thinking I want to express here, but I want to start by talking about the goals. Then shortly I will talk about the one goal both systems wanted to abandon, namely the inability to prove how you voted.
Many of the goals we talk about are actually sub-goals of the core high-level goals I will outline here. The challenge comes because no system yet proposed doesn’t have to trade off one goal for another. This forces us to examine these goals and see which ones we care about more.
The main goals, as I break them out are: Accuracy, Independence, Enfranchisement, Confidence and Cost. I seek input on refining these goals, though I realize there will be some overlap.
Accuracy and Precision
We want our voting system to accurately report the will of the voters. Unlike most other systems to measure will, we also want perfect precision — we believe that every vote must count, and as most systems are defined we believe it appropriate that a single vote can flip an entire election result if the votes are even.
The most talked about sub-goal of accuracy is security. While often thought of as its own goal, security is simply a means to accuracy. We don’t want it to be possible for bad actors to deliberately add, remove or change votes and in particular the vote total. We don’t want outsiders to be able to do it, and we don’t want trusted people such as election officials or providers of voting equipment to be able to do it.
Authentication of voters
Those not eligible to vote should not be able to vote. Each voter should vote exactly once.
Systems should record votes as cast. Systems should not break down, impeding or delaying voting. Systems must be up to the job of handling the full complexity of a ballot.
We wish to record a voter’s true will. While people are free to influence voters with persuasion and argument, we do not wish voters to let external pressure change their vote, including pressure from family, friends, employers, churches, thugs, vote-buyers or even political parties. Every vote should be cast because the voter thinks it is the right choice.
One-half of what we often call “secret ballot,” we feel that a ballot that nobody else can observe helps promote voter independence. If people can see how you vote, you may vote to please them, rather than select the candidate you feel is best.
The other half of “secret ballot” is the inability to demonstrate to others how you voted. You might try to demonstrate that because of coercion or bribes, or due to peer pressure, or simply out of pride. Being able to prove how you voted is very useful for vote buying. While revelation is usually optional, preserving a confidential ballot, if pressure is involved then a provable ballot is not a confidential ballot.
This is the sub-goal that some are considering abandoning.
The voting system itself must not bias the results towards any choice.
We wish all eligible voters to be able to vote without undue difficulty. For no voter should it be impossible to vote, and any high difficulty in voting should be mitigated as much as reasonably possible.
All eligible voters must be able to be authenticated (registered) to vote in the appropriate elections.
Somewhat more controversially, we seek high participation in the system. I say controversial because some would argue that it is satisfactory if everybody who truly cares above a certain level votes, as long as that level is roughly equal among the population, while those who don’t care enough to overcome certain inconveniences often don’t vote.
Ease of voting
The easier it is to vote, the more who will vote. In some cases this may even affect ability to vote, so I have not classed it as simply a sub-goal of turnout.
Vote at Home/Vote by Phone
Allowing vote at home supports ease of voting, and in some cases ability to vote.
Particularly if ballots become complex, systems can make it easier for voters to understand ballots and the process. (They can also help voters understand the security, aiding the Confidence goal below.) Systems can also detect errors in voting before a ballot is finalized and offer, in an unbiased way, chances to correct those errors. Preferential ballots (where candidates are ranked in order, such as in Australia) are notoriously difficult for some voters to understand and get right, and function best with voter assistance.
One simple form of voter assistance is the ability for the voter to read the ballot and any instructions in a language in which the voter is fluent, or in a non-printed form if the voter is not literate or is visually impaired.
Inherent in this goal is systems that don’t go the other way and confuse the voters, or make voters miss things.
The result must not only be accurate, the public must be confident in its accuracy and precision. Strictly, a system that is accurate is still valid if there is no public confidence, but in practice this does not work.
It is generally considered essential to confidence that there be some means to audit the results of whatever primary system tallies the votes, both for close elections, and in random spot-checks to prevent fraud. If practical, there is no reason every vote should not be counted in multiple, independent ways to assure security and accuracy.
This problem is difficultly recursive, however. There must be confidence in the methods of accountability as well.
The voters will not be confident in the results if they do not understand how the system works, and how the security and auditability work. “Trust the experts” may not be a great deal better than “trust the officials.”
There are constraints on how much money, as well as voter time, can be expended on a system.
Possibly an independent goal, but it is generally desired to have results within a day or two of the completion of voting, and there are in some cases rules demanding final results within some longer period, such as 2 months, even in very close and contested elections.
Goals Not Addressed
There are other goals which exist outside the voting system itself. For example, we seek district boundaries to be drawn fairly. (No gerrymandering.) Some seek to avoid unfair advantages for incumbents, or large biasing of the system via money. Some seek to avoid voter-chosen undervote (voting in one election but not in another.)
Strategies that seek to meet multiple goals
Electronic Voting machines are the hot topic in voting. People first came to them hoping for perfect precision and accuracy, which were not found in most other systems. However, their big supporters today are those looking for ease of voting and voter assistance. Machines can allow the disabled to vote on their own, explain complex ballots and point out errors.
However at the same time most implementations of machines failed at other goals, providing no auditability, costing lots of money and in some cases confusing voters rather than helping them. Failure of machines also has led to great difficulty of voting, long lines and even disenfranchisement. For some they inspire confidence, but many view voting machines as a dangerous exercise in “trust the experts.”
Vote by Mail
The entire state of Oregon has gone to vote by mail. This is very easy, and some argue it enhances turnout greatly. However, it sacrifices the unprovable ballot completely and has several security issues. More to come on this.
Where elections are simple, very simple systems are possible. In Canada voters simply take a slip of paper behind a screen, mark an X, tear off a serial number and place their ballot in a box, the serial number slip going in another. They are quickly counted and tallied. It is very easy to see how the system works, and how auditing works in recounts. Scrutineers from the various parties oversee the process to avoid corruption by election officials.
In some nations, voter tagging is done with a very low tech purple ink system. Those who vote get their thumb dipped in colour, they can’t vote again as it does not wear off for days. In some nations ballots are placed in transparent boxes (folded so votes can’t be seen) and these boxes remain under competing watchful eyes at all time.