‘Vote-flipping’ is real, but the cause is still unclear

Vote-flipping is a user-interface problem, not a technical flaw, says co-director of the Voting Technology Project

Before and during this month’s US mid-term elections, reports emerged that “vote-flipping” — where a voter selects a candidate using e-voting hardware and the machine counts the vote for another candidate — had occurred in some states.

Voters in both Broward and nearby Miami-Dade County in Florida had complained of vote-flipping during early voting, though local elections officials assured the public that no votes were changed.

Such problems have been reported in US elections since 2004, when states started a push to use electronic voting machines. The goal of e-voting was to improve the accuracy of elections. Instead, for many voters, the change has prompted suspicions that votes aren’t being correctly counted.

Despite e-voting critics’ fears that vote-flipping is caused by flaws in the machines, others say that such problems can be caused by user error, machine calibration problems or other factors.

Stanford University computer science professor David L Dill, who founded the not-for-profit organisation Verified Voting Foundation and VerifiedVoting.org, both based in San Francisco, is calling for investigations to determine the cause of vote-flipping incidents.

“People have been way too quick to diagnose the problem,” Dill says. “It could be a calibration problem with touch screens, but I’m not sure that anyone really knows because no one’s looked at it. I want facts ... and all I’ve heard for two years is speculation.”

Dill rejected one theory: that the problem is a conspiracy to defraud voters of their votes and give the election to the opposition. Once a voter picks a candidate, a review screen shows who they voted for.

“It seems to me if you were trying to commit fraud, you wouldn’t show [the ballot] to the voter,” he says.

Dill says the problem could be caused by voter error, perhaps by accidentally touching the screen and erroneously making a selection. He suggested that a panel of experts be formed to investigate the issue and determine how to fix any problems and get fixes to voting officials.

Ted Selker, co-director of the Voting Technology Project being conducted by the California Institute of Technology and MIT, has one explanation for such incidents: sloppy voters. Experiments by the researchers have found that voters incorrectly choose a candidate on their ballots one in 30 times, even under laboratory settings. “People are just sloppy and make mistakes,” Selker says.

Though voters may believe such problems are caused by e-voting machines, Selker says the actual cause may be simply how voters use e-voting hardware. For example, he says voters often try to drag a finger across a selection on touch screens that are designed for tapping. “Vote-flipping is a user-interface problem,” not a technical flaw, he says.

Avi Rubin, a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and director of ACCURATE, an election research centre, says the only way to be safe from vote-flipping is to have paper records of every ballot cast. “My big worry is that we cannot ever say conclusively whether or not it happens” as a result of software glitches, tainted code, machine rigging or other tampering if there is no paper record, he says.

Paper records also allow recounts in the case of a disputed result, Rubin noted, adding that “without them, recounts are impossible.”

A spokesman at e-voting equipment vendor Diebold Election Systems also says that e-voting machines don’t cause vote-flipping. “It’s not a problem,” he says. “It doesn’t exist. This again falls into the ‘what if’ scenario.”

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