Voting expert tells The Awl: There are reasons to be concerned about voting machines, but vast conspiracies aren't one of them

Tagg Romney doesn't own Ohio's voting machines. And Joseph Lorenzo Hall, senior staff technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology in D.C., says that a lot of the fears the public has about electronic voting are equally unfounded. The biggest thing to worry about, he tells The Awl's Maria Bustillos, is that we're so busy sending around email forwards about ostensible vast conspiracies that we're not paying enough attention to the very real security and tech problems that do exist in the voting system.

Maria Bustillos: I no longer know what to believe in media reports of electronic election tampering. What are professionals most worried about, at this point, in this election?

Joseph Lorenzo Hall: It's a very complex area and unfortunately one that lends itself to dearths of information and poor intuition… which is how Bello and Fitrakis get way out into left field. Extending email/fax voting to displaced NJ voters is making us very nervous… What I think we expect to see a lot of—and it's not as sexy as conspiracy theory—is the aging of this machinery, as much of it is 10- to 15-year-old computer equipment. Another not-so-sexy source of problems will be from newer online voter registration systems, an electronic version of pollbooks. We may see strange reports of people not being registered or being marked down as already voted. Much of that will seem to some like fraud, but it is more likely poorly checked voter registration rolls. People don't like having to cast provisional ballots, but they need to understand that if you're registered and at the right location, the ballot will count.

Maria: Why do you think we haven't been able to solve these problems, given that we've had years in which to do so?

Joe: Two reasons: 1) no one cares about it until presidential election years, and mostly right before that election; and, 2) there is no regular source of federal funding for elections (when it comes to a state or local government choosing between spending money to fill potholes—which affect people every day—or making elections better, they will fill the potholes).

Read the rest of the interview at The Awl

Image: Lonely Diebold Voting Machine, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from subfinitum's photostream


  1. Demand peer review for voting systems, end of story. if the machine at your voting booth is not peer reviewed, it is your duty as a citizen* to destroy it.

    *I am not a US Citizen, this statement refers to whatever country you’re lucky to be born in.

  2. one point is that it’s unnecessary to introduce such complex systems at all (“but i *need* the national vote counted *before* Colbert” …yeah, well).   paper ballots are hard to change (en-mass) and easily scanned.   we all love our smart-phones, ((well i might if i owned one)), but it isn’t necessary to use them to vote.  anyone that tells you otherwise is selling something, (princess)

  3. The problem with vast conspiracies is that they’re… vast.

    Keeping secrets about a conspiracy is difficult, even if they’re small. The Gunpowder plot (remember, remember, ….) was only 5 people – and was only discovered because of a leak.

    So when people tell you there’s an enormous conspiracy… just consider how many people would need to keep their mouths shut, and for how long.

    And remember Hanlon’s Razor

    1. Two men can keep a secret, if one of them is dead.

      But not all conspiracies are secret.  The ones to worry about are the ones who don’t give a damn who knows.

    2. First off, it has been shown time and again that a single person is all that is needed to hack these machines.  They are that insecure.

      Secondly, people actually HAVE leaked in this case.   Michael Connell spoke out and explained exactly what they did.  He was killed in a small plane crash within days.  Clinton Curtis testified in court that he was asked to rig votes.  Voting patterns have suggested that the machines are flipping votes:

      As I wrote below, the only two reasons not to allow e-voting machines to print out paper receipts are 1) you want to rig a vote or 2) you want to cover up issues with the voting machines.  I am not generally a conspiracy theorist, but in this case, Occam’s razor says to me that the simplest explanation – that the voting machines are insecure and open to rigging – is probably true.

    3. Hanlon’s Razor, yes always good to keep in mind, like the other Razor.

      There’s also Finagle’s Law:

      “Anything that can go wrong, will—at the worst possible moment.”


      Although Hanlon’s and Occam’s razor, and Finagle’s Law might be valid and possible, these laws, or a better term, heuristics (rules of thumb) are not mutually exclusive with a vast conspiracy. 

      Similar to 

      “Just because I’m paranoid, my paranoia does Not mean They are Not out to get me.”

      Forgot to say/cite, Finagle’s Law I learned from Larry Niven’s Known Space series, the pic attached to this comment is also from Niven’s ‘verse.

      Here is the WikiP entry for Finagle’s Law:'s_law

      1. “Just because I’m paranoid, my paranoia does Not mean They are Not out to get me.”

        that’s a corollary to Cobains’ Law, right?

  4. I don’t quite understand his argument.  We know there is a motivation to manipulate votes to win an election, we know that the companies involved with electronic voting are politically connected, and the software has minimal vetting (Didn’t someone hack the code in 04 or 08 to show how they could report votes differently?).  Why would anyone bother trying to screw things up in the link from the tabulation to the reporting when you can just mainpulate results as they’re recorded (or shortly after).
    I agree that email ballots are problematic and such but aside from these strange going-ons, I don’t understand why poor roll keeping (at the local level, and which would happen just as frequently on paper) is a bigger issue than mystery box voting machines which may or may not be recording correctly.

  5. I’m not worried about vast conspiracies, I’m worried about lots of really small conspiracies where the management these machines is in the hands of a small handful of people.

  6. Just switch to vote by mail, like Oregon’s system. It leaves an auditable paper trail, if you’re worried about shenanigans. It’s convenient for voters, and thus increases participation. And it costs far less than setting up all these polling stations once a year. 

    1. Vote by mail has issues with not being secret. An abusive spouse can force their husband or wife to vote how they want them to vote and watch them do it. Same with kids who have reached voting age but are still living with parents. And elderly people in similar situations. With a voting booth, you can tell someone to vote a particular way but it’s tough to be sure that they did.

      1. So the critics keep saying, but there’s no evidence that that is actually happening. 

        1. My first response was that we should deal with the larger problem, which is making voting accessible. But I have to admit, with all these articles about owners telling their serfs employees how to vote, it’s not that crazy to imagine them demanding to see ballots before they’re mailed in. It would be hugely illegal, but that’s never really stopped anybody.

          1. Well, I can understand the concern. But I’ve never heard a lick of evidence that such is happening in the states where it’s been instituted.

        2. Not in the US, but there was a case of serious fraud at a local election in Birmingham, England a few years ago when postal ballots were made available on demand. The election was ruled invalid after a judge found that 1500 ballots had been cast fraudulently in areas with a total population of 60,000 (and probably less than 40,000 eligible voters)- the police found candidates running a vote-forging factory in a warehouse, and there were reports of attempts to intimidate voters and steal ballots.

          1. Such a scenario is unlikely with Oregon’s system because you have to register to vote first, and then you get the ballot in the mail. Just one ballot sent per voter. 

          2. You have to sign your ballot. And if there’s a problem, they can compare it to your signature on file from when you registered. There are systems in place to prevent significant fraud.

          3. And there is also the option of dropping the ballot off at one of the re-purposed postal-type mailboxes that are at election H.Q., in front of the cop/shops or City Halls, or in the various suburban common areas. 

            At least in my town, people seem to prefer these drop-boxes and many, including me prefer to drop them off on election day, just for nostalgia, and also because of the remote fear of what AlexG55 says below.

  7. There are no conspiracies in America.  No one steals elections.  If you believe otherwise you wear a tinfoil hat.

    Right above, on the boingboing homepage we have the fact of the secretary of state (R) of Ohio ordering last minute unchecked, unverified “experimental” firmware being installed across the vote counting machines.  

    As for “no one cares about it until presidential election years, and mostly right before that election” we’ve had Black Box Voting for what, 12 years now investigating the rigging of electronic machines, the “spaghetti code” the private, secret, proprietary algorithms, etc.  

    Okay, go back to sleep.  No one has an interest in changing the results of a vote count.

  8. You know, when I was younger we voted on clanky brass machines that whirled your vote into a mechanical counter, and I think those machines were decades old.  They were made of metal and they lasted forever.  Now, electronic voting machines of every design are considered elderly at 10-15 years.  The problem is, these machines only get used a few times in 10-15 years.

    General purpose computers aren’t built to last because of Moore’s Law.  No point in building to last if, no matter what you build, it is guaranteed obsolete in 5-10.  But a voting machine isn’t a general purpose computer.  It has only one function, and it only gets used once every year or two.

    Given that, why isn’t somebody out there designing a reliable, auditable electronic voting machine that can be used for 50 years?  My engineering days are long behind me, but this seems like a problem that wouldn’t be too hard to tackle.  In fact, if it could be done cheaply, there might be one hell of a market for it.

    1. It is SO SIMPLE.  The machine just have to print out a human and machine readable ballot.  That is all.  The ballot is stored and can be counted.  That is the audit trail.  There is no need even to audit the code, the computers, or have anything last 50 years.  They simply need to create a hard copy.  

      It is the unwillingness to do this simple thing that makes the e-voting manufacturers legitimately suspect.

      1. I agree.  But if we have a new machine every 4 or 8 years, we get to go through distrusting the new machine – and therefore the election – again and again and again.  The old mechanical machines were probably sold off to third world countries, just like the Bell companies’ mechanical switching machines.

        But unlike switching machines, a faster voting machine isn’t better.  Reliable and trustworthy is better.

  9. So… he can’t comment on the existence of a conspiracy… but he’s ruled out a “Vast” one… thanks :P

  10. I don’t know about you, but I think Karl Rove was expecting those voting machines to come through for him last night.

  11. The picture looks like a device oriented towards disabled voters which can read a ballot or magnify it and display it in high contrast and then mark it with a pen for a traditional optical reader. Are you sure this is a dreaded electronic voting device everyone is fretting about in the comments?

Comments are closed.