I voted early because Sullivan County, TN is phasing in new voting machines this election. On election day, they will use the old touch screen system, while early voters get to test the "new" paper system.

The new system is sure to please fans of paper. However, it has two flaws that were obvious to me. I have no way of knowing that my vote will be counted as I filled it out, and I realized half way through that election officials can determine how I voted. Here's why...

You have two pieces of paper during the vote. A registration sheet is signed by the voter. A paper ballot has little rectangles that the votor fills in with a ballpoint pen in the privacy of the voting booth. The instructions say to fill in choices completely. Since the voting booths have a hard top, it's difficult to write on them with a ballpoint, let alone fill in little squares completely. The natural thing to do? Slide your second piece of paper under the ballot, so the pen can dig in better. If you don't think about it, you'll probably do this unconciously.

Half-way through, I realized that I was leaving imprints on the registration paper, with my name on it, that corresponded to my choices on the ballot. Due to the two-column layout, and the distinctive spacing between different choices, it's possible to look at those imprints and determine exactly how I voted. The registration paper has to be handed in at the end, so the official who sits there all day collecting these has plenty of time to work this out and determine the votes of anyone. (I moved my ballot around and re-filled in squares to try to confuse things.)

(Relatedly, one has to carry the paper ballot around the room to take it to the voting machine. It's difficult to keep the ballot obscured while doing this, since you can't fold it, and since they take the registration paper before the ballot, so you can't keep the ballot covered with it either.)

The second obvious flaw is that once I fed my ballot into the voting machine, which presumably scanned it and put it in a safe, there was only a confimation that "you've voted!". There was no way to verify that it had counted my vote as I'd marked it.

Most voting system work seems to be in the direction of advocating paper ballots for paper ballots' sake. This doesn't seem like the right approach to me. Is no-one working on writing down the characteristics that an ideal voting system would have, and trying to make them all requirements?

My take on requirements of an ideal voting system are:

  1. Only living people in the set of registered voters may vote.
  2. Each votor can only vote once.
  3. The votor should be able to verify that his vote was counted correctly.
  4. There must be a way for the votor to prove if his vote was not counted.
  5. The votor must not be able to prove which way he voted (to avoid payoffs, intimidation, etc).
  6. Others must not be able to determine how a votor voted.
  7. Individual votes must be retained to allow recounts.
  8. The entire vote data should be published so that the results can be verified by third parties.
  9. The system must scale to many millions of voters.
  10. The correctness of the entire voting system should be formally provable.

The paper ballot system I experienced today fails on at least points #2 [A] , #3 (see above), #4 (I walked away with nothing I can use to prove anything), #5 (I can video my vote), #6 (see above), and #8 [B]. At least it scales well though.

The old touch screen system failed most of the same points, though it made at least a small attempt to satisfy #3 (by confirming the vote onscreen) -- and it failed #7, and probably scaled worse.

Outside of the American election system, I've participated in voting systems that seem able meet requirements #1 [C], #2, #3, #4, #7, #8, and #10.

To me, #10 is the most important point, but it seems to be the one that is neglected most. Some of the points may be worth weakening if they block other points. Is it really worth avoiding giving me something to prove how I've voted, and banning taking cameras into the polling place, in order to meet point #5, if this defeats point #4?

I'm curious what requirments I may have left out too. My list is just a rough stab at it. The real point is to analyze voting systems, and reject ones that don't provably meet criteria. Until it becomes accepted practice to do that, our voting systems will not get appreciably less flawed.

[A] If you can get two copies of the ballot, you can vote twice ... fairly easy with a friend on the inside to arrange for the two copies to get "stuck together", and another one at the vote scanner to allow you to scan both.

[B] The ballots could be published, but there's no way to prove all of them, or the true ballots would be. And in reality, they're either shredded, or locked away, or tossed in a dumpster, or variously all three.

[C] Mostly. Perfectly accomplishing #1 is harder than most of the other points, and may be worth leaving out of scope.