Saturday, June 28, 2008

Instant runoff forces Pierce County Washington to use uncertified voting systems

Pierce County Washington adopted "instant runoff voting" in November 2006. Pierce County officials were backed into a corner in May 2008 and ended up getting permission to use uncertified IRV software, violating their own state's laws. Officials said that even counting just 14 IRV ballots was too hard, and they needed the state to approve the uncertified software. Their machines could not tabulate instant runoff so they were waiting for the vendor to develop software. Time was running out because Pierce was supposed to utilize Instant runoff for their upcoming elections. The vendor delivered the software but it hadn't been federally tested or approved at the time.

Pierce County tested the new Sequoia software, found some problems, and asked the Secretary of State to certify parts of the system on an emergency basis since it would be too hard to count manually.

Pierce County officials said: they tried hand-counting just 14 RCV ballots with seven ranked contests and found that it was “horrendous.” Using software to tally this sort of balloting was absolutely essential. She found that it simply couldn’t be done any other way.

Ellen Theisen and John Gideon of Voters Unite have a writeup on the May 13 testing results and for the IRV software being considered for Pierce County voting machines. found serious problems with them.

In testing, the system reported that there were "zero votes" to start(in one set of its records), but actually had 56 votes already in its other set of vote records.

Voting System Certification Hearing in Washington State May 23, 2008 by Ellen Theisen

...John and I were concerned about the Sequoia system. Pierce County, WA voters had voted to use Ranked Choice Voting (RCV), a system where voters may specify their preferences in particular races on the ballot as "first choice", "second choice", or "third choice". However, no state-certified system had the software needed to tabulate RCV ballots. So Sequoia developed their software specifically for Pierce County. They had applied for “emergency” provisional certification from the state, which would allow them to bypass state requirements for independent testing to the federal standards.

John and I planned to go to the testing on May 14, but at the last minute the testing for that day was called off so officials could investigate a problem that had shown up the previous day. the Sequoia system had tallied votes wrong.

Later in the day, Patty Murphy emailed us from the SoS office to let us know what happened:

Monday night, a test run was done on the 5 insights [Sequoia Insight Optical Scanners]. Once complete, one tester zeroed out each machine and memory pack. (You can reset, or zero out, the memory pack at the Insight machine.) Following this tester was a 2nd worker who powered off all the Insights. On one of the machines, they powered it off before the machine was finished zeroing out the memory pack. Each memory pack has all the results tabulated by precinct first on the pack, followed by cast vote records that have results by ballot. It zeroed out the tabulated section, but it didn't erase all the cast vote records.

On Tuesday, when we started the machines, we ran zero reports. They were all zero because they show all the tabulated results by precinct (the portion that was zeroed out). However, when we moved the memory packs to the reporting software, it added up all the cast vote records, and reported those results.

In other words, the Sequoia system checked one set of electronic ballot records and reported an “empty ballot box,” but then used a different set of ballot records to tabulate the votes. This is exactly like checking one ballot box to ensure that it’s empty before opening the polls, and then using a different, unchecked ballot box for the voted ballots to be tallied at the end of the day. But the unchecked box hadn’t been empty.

John and I both wrote up testimony, which we immediately sent to Patty Murphy. As you can imagine, we objected to having a system certified when, in testing, it reported that there were "zero votes" to start, but actually had 56 votes already in its secret, unobservable "ballot box"! Patty Murphy passed our testimony along to the Review Board so they would have time to read our statements before the hearing.

Here's John's. Here's mine.

Patty thoroughly described the problem that had occurred, the discrepancy in the results, and the possible workarounds proposed by Sequoia —which involved “patching” the software in both the scanner that falsely reported a blank ballot box and in the WinEDS software that counted ballots from the “stuffed” ballot box.

Then she added a new thought we hadn’t heard before — the possibility of using the Edge touch-screen machine, the central count optical scanner, and the WinEDS tabulating software without using the flawed Insight scanner. I thought that sounded like a possible solution.

Regarding the complex algorithm used to tally RCV ballots, Patty pointed out that software, of some type, would be needed to tally such ballots correctly. She explained how they tried hand-counting just 14 RCV ballots with seven ranked contests and found that it was “horrendous.” Using software to tally this sort of balloting was absolutely essential. She found that it simply couldn’t be done any other way.

...Pat McCarthy, Pierce County Auditor, spoke first. She said that she was so concerned about the flaw on the Insight scanner, she had decided not to use it at all, contrary to her original intention. ...Pat McCarthy had listened to the evidence and had
decided to reject the equipment, regardless of what the Board recommended or whether the SoS certified it.

...Edwin Smith from Sequoia was there to represent their system that had failed during testing. He attempted to claim that the miscount wasn’t really an accuracy issue, because it had been caused by an operator error that could be handled through proper procedures. But the Review Board heard John’s statements about the accuracy requirements in federal and state law and acted on them responsibly -- as you’ll read in a moment.

I pointed out that what Smith called “operator error” was really good testing, and I saw heads nod among the Review Board.

...To get us back on track, John emphasized again that using a system that miscounted votes was a violation of federal law that could not be ignored.

Debbie Cook ...and made a motion to recommend approval for the system, with a stipulation prohibiting the use of the Insight scanner. Joachin Avila suggested adding another amendment — the approval would depend on a legal decision that the system would not violate the accuracy requirement of federal law as long as the Insight wasn’t used.

The Review Board unanimously passed the motion as amended.

The Secretary of State of Washington granted "emergency" permission in May 2008 for Pierce County to use the uncertified software on Seqouia machines, even though flaws were found in the WinEDS (central tabulating system). The "Insight" optical scanners for precinct voting were not approved, but the touchscreens and central count scanners were - on an emergency basis. All optical scan ballots will be hauled off to the county office to be tabulated.
(June 13 2008 Secretary of State press release)

This report has been forwarded to the San Francisco Elections Department, since they plan to use the Sequoia "Insight" precinct scanner once federal certification is granted. iF the machines are not certified by November, then San Francisco will not use them to tabulate the IRV rankings. That will be done by hand.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Instant Runoff Voting Fails to Meet its Hype

Instant Runoff Voting
Facts Versus Fiction

See our website to find out what computer scientists, mathematicians, political consultants, election officials, government officials, and voter advocates say about IRV. See our "San Francisco" page to read news about how IRV has impacted the largest jurisdiction in the US to use it. Read the official reports on San Francisco's IRV elections. Find out why some US jurisdictions and groups turned this experiment down after discussing the pros and cons. Find out if IRV really is "as easy as 1-2-3", whether it really helps third parties or hurts them, IRV and San Francisco's dramatic drop in voter turnout for mayoral contests, IRV's consistant majority failure , costs associated with IRV, and whether it encourages computerized voting .

What IS instant runoff voting?

Instant-runoff voting (IRV) is a voting system used for single-winner elections in which voters can rank candidates in order of preference. In an IRV election, if no candidate receives a majority of first choices, the candidate with the fewest number of votes is eliminated, and ballots cast for that candidate are redistributed to the continuing candidates according to the voters' indicated preference. IRV incentivizes the need for higher tech voting machines, makes audits and recounts more prohibitive, further eroding election transparency.

Who supports Instant Runoff ?

The current push to implement Instant Runoff Voting (nation-wide) was inspired by Fair Vote , a group whose ultimate goal is to convert the United States over to "proportional representation" a form of government used in many European countries. Publicly, IRV is being sold as a way to boost third parties, reduce or eliminate the "spoiler effect", save money by avoiding runoff elections, increase turnout and decrease negative campaigning.

Why do some election integrity groups oppose Instant Runoff Voting?

IRV requires (incentivizes) more complex voting machines/technology that isn't yet ready for prime time. San Francisco elections were a beta test for IRV software from 2004-2007. In 2007 Secretary of State McPherson reported an long existing anomaly in the IRV algorithm used to calculate the winners.

Dr. Rebecca Mercuri Internationally respected computer scientist and e-voting expert warns -

IRV and other proportional balloting methods have been proven to incentivize the introduction of electronicballot tabulation in places where none previously was needed or has existed, and they further complicate whathas become an increasingly closed process for the determination of election results.For example, in May, Scotland will see their first use of a run-off style election, accompanied by their first use of optical ballot scanners.......

It is incumbent upon election officials to be able to thoroughly understand how results will be calculated, suchthat manual recounts and audits are possible, when mandated. These processes also become increasinglydifficult and more time consuming when run-off methods are employed, so the chance that errors in the electronic or manual vote calculations will be detected and properly resolved is necessarily reduced.Furthermore, there are certain run-off methods that can produce different results based on the organization of ballots in the stack.

Since these methods lend themselves to potential "gaming" of the ballot set that may not be independentlydetectable or auditable, these run-off styles must be prohibited.

In “Realities Mar Instant Runoff Voting - 17 Flaws and 3 Benefits” Kathy Dopp, President of the National Election Data Archive addresses the complexity of counting and great difficulty of auditing instant runoff style voting, and its flaws as a voting method:

“Instant runoff voting is a threat to the fairness, accuracy, timeliness, and economy of U.S. elections. The U.S. needs to solve its existing voting system problems and then carefully consider the options before adopting new voting methods.”

Dopp's report is the most thorough and best documented evaluation of Instant runoff voting I have seen to date. The next best evaluation of IRV is by the election experts at The Center for Range Voting.

Ok, so we know IRV makes it harder to know if your vote counts. What about the good things IRV does? Like ending negative campaigning, getting candidates to endorse each other, helping the third parties gain power?

Greg Dewar, a San Francisco political consultant for Greens and Dems pans the hype around IRV in Straight Talk On So-Called "Instant Runoff Voting" or Why the "Cure" Is as Deadly as the "Disease"

Myth: Elections are too expensive. We need IRV to "save money" and avoid these runoff elections. This is possibly the most cynical, and the most dangerous argument I have heard for any election system, IRV or not. To me, a sound, safe, fair, and honest election system is the bedrock of any democracy. To try and do it "on the cheap" just because some limousine liberals (or whoever) have somehow deemed elections are "expensive" is bogus.... People fought and died for our freedom in wars - why would we dishonor them by saying that we need to cut a few pennies off the voting process so we can fund more tax breaks for corporations, or other special interest groups?

Greg talks about the claim that IRV will eliminate negative campaigning, and whether that is a good thing or not:

Myth: People will run positive campaigns, because if they run campaigns that say bad things about their opponents, the supporters of Said Opponents will retaliate by not voting for themThe biggest lie in the IRV sales pitch. While it is true that this was an assumption many people chose to live by during the 2004 elections, it was based entirely on supposition and belief, not on the political culture and tradition most people make their decisions on.

In fact, all the candidates who engaged in all sorts of cutsey "buddy buddy" election gimmicks, such as holding joint fundraisers for the same office, or putting out mail pieces jointly paid for by more than one candidate, all got their asses kicked (my client included).

...More to the point, the eventual winner in all the races was the person who got the most votes on Election Day and all the bullshit scenarios whittled by consultants and others who somehow thought they could run a half-assed campaign and still win were out the door.

Instant runoff voting does NOT help third parties, writes Devin Ray Freeman of the Libertarian Reform Caucus in "Anyone for a Bullet in the Foot? Instant Runoff!"

I say IRV is clearly well-designed to keep the same two parties in control, but if you're not convinced that IRV is wholly unsuitable for multi-party democracy, don't take my word for it. Simply look to Australia, where Instant Runoff (called “Preferential Voting” there) has been in place for a century, and two barely distinguishable major parties bicker but reign together with impunity. Just think. Where's it gotten Australia? Click and see what the Australian Electoral Comission itself says about Preferential Voting (IRV).

A few U.S. cities now use IRV, or an IRV-like reallocation short-form under the IRV banner! *gasp* It's beginning to catch on in the States!

The pro-IRV people are deluded. Instant Runoff does nothing that its proponents say it does. IRV can be trusted to maintain a two-party system. When lawmakers on the hill realize this, what's to stop them from building whole-hearted bipartisan suport for IRV? Some in Congress already say they like it! If nothing is said against IRV, one day we'll all be worse off than we were with Plurality Voting! IRV lovers don't know where they're pointing their pistol!

After the Green Party's big push for IRV in San Francisco, they didn't do their part, and IRV is helping Incumbents win with less than a majority, writes John Dunbar, in Instant Runoff Voting Not Meeting Expectations (Beyond Chron Nov. 17‚ 2005)

It's noteworthy that the Green Party which has long supported ranked choice voting so that there could be oxygen in the American electoral system for their politics failed to make a single endorsement, much less three for Treasurer, Assessor and City Attorney. Non was the operative ranking principle.

...How good a job is IRV doing in terms of producing democratic outcomes with the greatest number of voters? In 2004, no supervisor in a contested race triggering ranked choice voting won a majority of the total votes cast in their districts. In multiple candidate races, supervisors were elected who received well under 40 percent of the total votes cast.

Finally, Dunbar soberly comments on the IRV hype:

IRV is simply a voting system. It gives the electorate a new set of tools, but it asks an enormous amount of voters, news organizations and endorsement groups. The jury on this San Francisco experiment is still out, but IRV to date falls short of its backers expectations.