Ohio GOP Secretary of State orders secret, last minute, unaudited software updates to voting machines

Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted has asked voting machine giant ES&S to install last-minute, unverified, custom firmware updates on the state's voting machines. This is highly irregular, and the details of it are shrouded in secrecy and silence -- the few, terse statements from Husted's office on the matter have been self-contradictory and unhelpful. On Salon, Brad Friedman tries to untangle the mess, and concludes that it's impossible to say what the new software in Ohio's voting machines actually does, nor why unaudited, unapproved software should be added to voting machines in a critical swing-state at the last minute, but that it's highly suspicious and possibly illegal.

I’d like to have been able to learn much more before running anything on this at all, frankly. But the lack of time between now and Tuesday’s election — in which Ohio’s results are universally believed to be key to determining the next president of the United States — preclude that.

So, based on the information I’ve been able to glean so far, allow me to try to explain, in as simple terms as I can, what we currently know and what we don’t, and what the serious concerns are all about.

And, just to pre-respond to those supposed journalists who have shown a proclivity for reading comprehension issues, let me be clear: No, this does not mean I am charging that there is a conspiracy to rig or steal the Ohio election. While there certainly could be, if there is, I don’t know about it, nor am I charging there is any such conspiracy at this time. The secretive, seemingly extra-legal way in which Secretary of State Husted’s office is going about whatever it is they are trying to do, however, at the very last minute before the election, along with the explanations they’ve given for it to date, and concerns about similar cases in the past, in both Ohio and elsewhere, are certainly cause for any reasonable skeptic or journalist to be suspicious and investigate what could be going on. And so I am …

One thing that Friedman doesn't say is that this all wouldn't be such a problem if voting machines produced voter-verified paper audit trails of their actions. That is, after you vote, the machine could print out a paper record of your vote, move it into position in front of a plastic widow so you could verify the vote, and then move it along into a locked audit-box. Virtually every other kind of digital tabulating device does this, from EEGs to ATMs to cash-registers. The technology is trivial. And it would give us the ability to verify, after the fact, whether the votes had been correctly counted and transmitted from each machine.

Update: Friedman updates via Twitter: "The machines in question are the tabulators. The machines already have 'paper trail'."

Is the GOP stealing Ohio?



  1. The system here in NY is cumbersome but seems pretty sensible.  Instead of voting on the machine itself, we vote on paper by bubbling in ovals like a standardized test.  Then we feed the paper ballot into a scanner that instantly confirms that our vote was recorded and stores the ballot in a locked ballot box in case of a recount.

    1. The problem is, you vote on paper in Ohio too.  This software patch affects the machine that *counts* the paper ballots.   The patch affects the last step where the precinct totals for each county are summed and are reported to the secretary of state.   

      1. So, if the exit polls are skewed can’t you demand a re-count?  I am really reassured that there are paper ballots in Ohio.

    2. I’ll be confirming that my vote was tallied in a few hours with this simple little trick …. I could easily have used a UUID or a fake name. I’d call this a “temporary private key”. One of the poll workers promised me the write-ins would be listed out front this evening on a chart … and then in the newspaper or similar within the week.


    3. Minnesota too, and frankly I think it’s the only way to go.  There is a clear, easy to read paper trail, but you get the advantage of a faster count.  Though, I did stand in line for two and a half hours, and over on the “good side of the tracks” where my parents live there was no line.  I’m not claiming it’s perfect here.

    4. That is how we do in Kentucky, too. No dangling chads, no funky touch screens — well — for sight-impaired people, but they also have the option of having the candidates read to them, too, electronically.

      The paper ballot box is one where you darken the bubble for the candidate. The ballot feeds in and the box tallies the vote and keeps the ballots in a locked compartments in case there is a recount called. There is a paper verification tape for the touch screen. I prefer having the paper ballot. this is one time when I feel sacrificing trees, at this time, is paramount, until such time as they start making paper out of something else. (Bamboo?)

      1.  There is bamboo paper, but bamboo is actually quite rare compared to trees, even the kinds of trees we commonly use to make paper. Paper isn’t a bad thing, but sometimes the methods used to grow the trees are more sustainable than others.

  2. Well, I voted in Ohio this morning and I was shown a paper printout that I could verify myself. Is there any information on where these updated machines are being used?

    1.  I notice from your avatar that you don’t have many obvious connections to the people I’ve seen wating in line in Ohio.

      Where did you vote, and if you don’t mind my being a racist about this, how white is your polling place?

        1. Voter suppression is not a blanket distributed evenly across all polling places.

          By learning where he voter we hear about where there is NOT a problem.,

          By asking about the racial makeup of the precinct, I’m looking for correllation between skin color dominance at a precint, and ease of voting.

          Is that somehow suspect? I mean, it’s racist to ask such questions, but it’s not bigoted. The people doing the disenfranchisement, they’re the bigots. Naming them to fight them does not make me one of them.

          1. It happened in Florida when G.W. Bush took his election to the Supreme Court. It was found that boxes of ballots had not returned to the precinct, and it seemed they were irretrievable till after the count. These were from several predominantly black precincts, and I think that added to the controversy. You have a right to know, I think, where voter suppression is taking place, because then you can possibly discern why.

        2. The people he’s seen in Ohio have a high degree of vertical symmetry.  Galois appears to have mostly horizontal symmetry.

        3. I understand why you ask that eee, but I have to say, I was redistricted from a majority white district to a majority African American district (I live right on the edge) and let me tell you, you cannot imagine how different it was.  Where I used to vote I was in and out in 15 minutes, with polite and casual election judges.  This year I had a 2.5 hour wait, with the first hour out in the cold and rain, inside it was hot and stuffy, and the judges were angry and weird.  There were several extra steps I never had to go through before.  Having experienced this I can safely say, as a white liberal in a blue state: our system is not fair to black voters.  

    2. According to the Salon article, the software wasn’t an update on the voting machines themselves, but on the voting tabulators that collect the data from the machines and ad them up.

      It actually sounds like the software patch was just to change the tabulation output from XML to CSV for those counties that use a CSV based system to compile their results.  But it is rather bizarre that they wouldn’t just say so.

      1. I have to wonder how much of the “secrecy” is the reporter in question just asking the wrong people the wrong question and getting blank stares?

        The piece comes of a bit alarmist, but I do have to agree with his overall point that making a last minute change to the machine looks suspicious as hell, even if it’s something as simple as “our tabulators only support CSV but the machine was set up for XML, so we switched it over.” 

        1. No, they took it to court this morning (and it was thrown out by a registered republican judge).  Voting tech experts repeatedly questioned the secretary of state’s office and got no answers. It’s not just some crazy reporter doing this.  Every expert who’s looked at it has been concerned (the article is worth reading)

      2. “It even has a time code on it, and those are very difficult to fake.”

        “For the benefit of the court, will you please explain ‘time code’?”

        “Just because I don’t know what it is doesn’t mean I’m lying!”

    3. This software patch affects the machine that *counts* the paper ballots.   The patch affects the last step where the precinct totals for each county are summed and are reported to the secretary of state.

  3. I think “racial” would be more appropriate than “racist” here – unless you’re out to confess something, but I think we get your point.

  4. I voted in Ohio this morning and didn’t get a paper printout that did me any good. There was some kind of paper being printed on behind a little plastic window, but it was code-gook.

    FYI, my polling place is in a predominantly white/Republican neighborhood.

  5. Uh oh. If Romney wins are we going to be plagued by Progressive truthers with voting machine conspiracy theories?

    The solution of course is to bring back the paper ballot: whether punch cards or scanners. And to forbid judicial “interpretations” of ballots in close elections. If the ballot is bad or if two candidates are selected, then the ballot is rejected.

    Electronic methods are convenient, but they invite a constant escalation of hacking attempts and (just as bad) fear of hacking attempts.

    1. And to forbid judicial “interpretations” of ballots in close elections. If the ballot is bad or if two candidates are selected, then the ballot is rejected.

      Yes, but you can apply Gödel’s Law to explain why your rule makes no sense. You want only unambiguous ballots to go through? Well, who decides what an “unambiguous” ballot is? What if you have one fully-punched hole and one dented one — is that unambiguous? What about less dented — a scratch mark — or more dented — a small tear? What if an oval is filled in and there’s a tiny dot in another one? At some point we have a Sorites Paradox: there can be no clear dividing line between one state and the other.

      There’s always going to be interpretation, and wherever you draw that line between “ambiguous” and “unambiguous,” the campaigns will deploy lawyers to argue whether each and every ballot is on one side or the other of the line. I know, I’ve been at one of those tables going over ballots while the “other” campaign had their guy at the table, each of us ready to call the campaign’s lawyers if any ballot looked like it could be thrown out.

      1. “What if you have one fully-punched hole and one dented one — is that unambiguous? What about less dented — a scratch mark — or more dented — a small tear? What if an oval is filled in and there’s a tiny dot in another one?”Sounds ambiguous to me. When in doubt, though it out.

        1. Let me clarify. If the a dent is severe enough to cause the scanner to read it as an extra punch, then it’s ambiguous. If a dot is being read by the scanner as a fully filled in oval, it’s ambiguous. If you run the same ballot through three times and it gets rejected by extra marks, that’s ambiguous. Throw it out.

    2. So, paper ballots are used in Ohio.  This software affects the step where precinct totals are summed at each county and then reported to the secretary of state.  It doesn’t matter what sort of receipt you got, or paper you filled out, if the problem is happening *after* the votes are counted and before they’re reported.   

      If you just wanted to update the machines software for convenience, why not do it along an ordinary timeline and using the regular review and verification procedure?  Instead, this software has been introduced at the last minute, unreviewed and untested, as a “experimental software patch” that the company is trying out. That’s allowed by Ohio law, if you’re testing it on a handful of precincts. But ‘experiment’ is being done on half the counties in Ohio, and specifically the most populous half. Why would you experiment on 80% of the voters in OH, rather than a randomized subset of precincts?    This is a ridiculous thing to do.

      1. For what it’s worth, my precinct (which, for what it’s worth, is oh so very white) uses Diebold touch-screen voting machines with a meaningful paper printout. But, yes, even if it’s a precinct where the voting is done on paper, this is at the tabulation level. However, if push comes to shove (and I’m sure the Obama campaign will shove if they lose), there’ll be a recount of the paper.

  6. Dammit – didn’t any of you people read ‘The Prefect” by Alistair Reynolds?!  Software patches will destroy us all!

  7. I voted in Ohio today, in Greene county. I had exactly the type of voting machine you specified, “That is, after you vote, the machine could print out a paper record of your vote, move it into position in front of a plastic widow so you could verify the vote, and then move it along into a locked audit-box.” So at least in my case, the “no paper trail, no evidence” argument doesn’t fly.

    1. I think the argument which “fly’s” is that a couple dozen targeted precincts could swing the election there. You might not live in one of those. I’m glad you didn’t have a hard time voting, but it’s hardly evidence against shenanigans anywhere else. It is evidence of your precinct being easy to vote in. What does your precinct look more like?




    2. It sounds like this is the software that counts up the totals, not the stuff that handles individual votes.

      So, a malicious update could include knowledge of what sort of voting process each precinct or county is using, and accurately count those places where an audit of the paper records is possible, but skew the ones where there is no paper trail to turn back to.

  8. I voted in Ohio, and I saw nothing about a verification system, beyond the ink-in ballot and the scan. Ironic that the sticker-button handed out for your showing citizenship after voting, came from the Sec. It says, “I Made A Difference. So Can You. Vote. -Ohio Secretary of State.”
    I hope this isn’t the wrong kind of difference…

  9. Voting machines are actually a good thing; correctly made, they will help reduce errors and streamline the election process.
    These particular styles of machines, however, do not – they obfuscate errors and streamline fraud.

    A proper, fair, verifiable voting machine would be in 3 parts:
    1) Voting machine that tabulates what you enter for your votes, and prints out
    2) A paper ballot with your vote selections printed right on it in human-readable format, that you then stick into
    3) A vote tabulating machine that scans your paper ballot (preferably manufactured by a different manufacturer than the Voting Machine in part 1)
    After the election closes, you verify that the number from both machines match up; if not, you pull out the paper ballots for the official count.

    1. None of that would actually help on this one (they’re getting clever!)  This software patch affects the step where precinct totals are summed at each county and then sent in to the secretary of state.  So *after* the paper ballots are filled out and scanned and the receipts are handed out.   You have a receipt for your one vote, both parties are sure that the voting machines are ok and the precinct totals are correct…  but the total can be changed just before it gets reported.  In fact, the records of the precinct counts can be changed retroactively (the software has write access to the database for god only knows what reason).

      Unverified, proprietary software can be used at the last minute in ohio if it’s just used on a handful of precincts, as an “experiment” by the voting tech company.  This “experiment” affects 80% of the voters in Ohio.  Great random sample there, huh?

      1. Unverified, proprietary software can be used at the last minute in ohio if it’s just used on a handful of precincts, as an “experiment” by the voting tech company.

        Its bizarre. I work on proprietary software for transportation and you are absolutely not allowed to deploy it to a handful of sites as an experiment. Thats what validation is for. You deploy it when it is ready.

  10. As an outsider I wonder why the US can’t just have a federal agency which takes care of all the voting. It could be the same everywhere and if there were process problems they could be fixed once and left alone.

    1. A combination of heritage and inertia, which is why we also still have the electoral college instead of direct election of the president.

      I actually think this is a good thing because individual states are legally allowed to implement better voting systems than “first past the pole”, and so that the Ohio Secretary of State can’t interfere with voting machines in the other 49 states.

    2. See Bush v. Gore. It doesn’t make a lot of us happier when one government agency has too much of the power.

  11. Don’t worry–election officials and government contractors are just taking a cue from Silicon Valley. Rapid-iteration, agile-style election software development!

  12. Unless things have changed drastically in the last couple of years, these systems are audited by *nobody*.  We just take the manufacturers’ word for it.  Here’s a graphic from the Washington Post circa 2004 comparing voting machines with something *really* important.

  13. I live in Ohio.  I’ve used those machines before and observed that on the left side, there is indeed a paper printout displayed behind a plastic window.

    That said, for all I know it’s switching my vote before it prints it out, as seems to be happening in PA.  And my polling place offered a paper-ballot option–a real paper ballot, not a provisional ballot or an absentee ballot.  So guess what I voted on today.

  14. One thing I find fortunate is that the Census of 2010 has changed the numbers of electoral votes in each state. No longer do you have to capture the electoral of only 7 states. You have to capture more like 19, which is closer, in my opinion, to capturing half the number of states in the U.S. People live in more places, now, and many people have moved to Texas from Florida, as well. That is probably why Florida is no longer looked at as the target first-results state.

    So not even Ohio can determine how people will vote, ultimately. The Western United States has many who must be wooed.

    I am still hopeful about this election.

  15. “I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this — who will count the votes, and how.” Joseph Stalin (Boris Bazhanov’s _Memoirs of Stalin’s Former Secretary_, 1992)

  16. It would be the “perfect crime” to scam the Ohio election. If they don’t get caught, they win. If they do get caught, it goes to the only election that matters: 5 to 4 in the Supreme Court.

  17. FWIW, I voted in Ohio this morning, in a majority-black urban precinct, using the optical-scan paper ballot machine. I was in and out in minutes, and the judges were friendly, helpful, and gracious. I was asked to show my ID, which I did, but opined that “I hate this law,” to the approval of elderly civil-rights era veterans manning the polling station. There were no partisan poll-watchers in evidence, and the only guy handing out literature was a young black man passing out Democratic sample ballots. I showed him the sample ballot I’d already loaded up on my iPad, which we both agreed was pretty cool.

    Now this is in Cincinnati, and truth be told, all the Tea Party/GOPer types I know refuse to go downtown for any reason, not to mention Over-the-Rhine or the West End (where I vote). For some reason, they are convinced that it is a violent, dangerous area, where death can strike at any moment. I suspect that they couldn’t find a Republican activist who wasn’t too frightened to intimidate voters in my precinct (which is actually full of lovely people from a variety of social, ethnic, and economic classes).

    (Note: “Judging from my avatar,” I’m a 19th c. French ex-pat living in Harlem, NY, who was mesmerized in articulo mortis, but in RL I’m actually a fat white middle-aged neckbeard working in the software industry.)

  18. I can’t speak for Ohio or any other states, but the electronic voting machine I used here in Missouri (St. Louis area) had the voter verified paper audit feature. Unfortunately, I think I was the only one that was actually looking at it (or knew it even existed).

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