The year was 1977, and my friend Gail was in the market for a used car. One of the guys in our apartment building, Chuck, wanted to sell his Pinto.
“No, Gail, no,” I told her. “People are saying the Pinto’s gas tank can explode in even low-speed rear-end crashes. There’s talk of recall and lawsuits. If you buy this car, you won’t be able to resell it.”
My roommate backed me up. “Gail, I saw a Datsun B210 for sale on Johnson Street. The B210 does everything the Pinto does, without the risk. Forget about the Pinto.”
Gail believed us but dismissed the concerns. “Ford wouldn’t be selling the car if it was a big problem,” she said. “And besides, Chuck said the car has seat belts.” She thought for a second and couldn’t come up with any more ways to dismiss or minimize the risk. “I have faith it’ll be okay.”
The more we tried to reason with her, the sillier her arguments became. Chuck had done a good job cleaning his trash out of the car. She could probably minimize the risk by never filling the gas tank more than a quarter full.
Gail had turned off her brain.
Gail came to mind during the Wisconsin Elections Commission meeting last week. The Commissioners were meeting to decide whether to approve an updated version of a risky piece of elections equipment, called the ExpressVote. They were listening to the manufacturer’s sales representatives the way Gail had been listening to Chuck, while treating words of warning like flies to be swatted away.
The ExpressVote is a type of ballot-marking device (BMD), which voters use to mark their ballots when they cannot, or do not want to, use a pen. BMDs don’t count votes; they just mark ballots. But they can be misprogrammed to print a ballot that contains different votes than the ones the voter intended.
Safe BMDs manage this risk by printing ballots that look like regular hand-marked paper ballots. Each vote is recorded once, as a marked oval beside some candidate’s name. The voter can verify that the mark is next to the correct name. The tabulator looks at that same mark when it counts the vote.
The ‘Pintos’ among the BMDs—that is, the unsafe ones—print barcoded ballots. Barcoded ballots record each vote twice—once in text, and once in barcode. Voters can verify only the votes printed in the text. The tabulator can count only the votes inside the barcode. If the BMD is programmed to print one vote in text and a different vote in the barcode, the voter cannot notice. The ExpressVote, manufactured by elections-technology giant ES&S, is one of these machines.
When a state elections authority is aggressively looking for the best, most secure solutions for their state’s elections, they would want all the relevant, reliable information they could get. They would invite a presentation from the manufacturer, of course, but they would also invite other trusted people to answer questions that might arise and to comment on the manufacturers’ claims. The commissioners would ask tough questions, demonstrating that they want nothing less than the full, unbiased facts. They would interpret every gray area in favor of security, not in favor of the manufacturer.
But the June WEC meeting was not that. These staff and commissioners were looking for ways to justify approving the machine.
As usual, uninvited members of the public could speak for five minutes at the beginning of the meeting. As usual, I took that opportunity. I explained the risks of barcoded ballots. I warned the commissioners of the gathering storm of litigation and legislation. I told them barcoding has no benefit to justify the risk. I told them they have other options. I asked them to protect our votes by avoiding this pointless risk. The commissioners listened politely but asked no questions.
For the next two hours, I and everyone else in the room was required to listen silently as the salesmen demonstrated their product and gave their no-time-limit pitch. The meeting provided no opportunity for independent correction or rebuttal if they made any unjustified claims. If they omitted any important information, the meeting presented no chance for anyone else to provide it.
The one cautious interlude was when Commission Chair Dean Knudson led a responsible line of questioning into whether municipal clerks test the BMDs before each election. This was no challenge to the vendor, but to its credit, the commissioners voted to promote municipal testing before future elections.
But other than that, ES&S, the commissioners, and staff all acted in concert with one shared goal: To minimize or refute concerns about the security of the ExpressVote and approve it for sale in Wisconsin.
One example: The issue of voter verification. To quell concerns about voter verification, ES&S designed a feature into the ExpressVote that allows a voter to reinsert the barcoded ballot back into the machine, and have the BMD display the votes on a computer monitor for a second time.
But of course that does not provide true verification. Everyone in the room—commissioners, staff, and salesmen included—was smart enough to know that if a hacker ever programs a BMD to print the wrong votes in the barcode, the hacker will also program it to display only the right votes to the voter.
But the commissioners’ BS detectors were turned off. Not one commissioner asked a skeptical or challenging follow-up questions. None bothered to wonder out loud what purpose barcoding serves anyway. (Answer: None. It’s all risk, no reward.) Both staff and commissioners repeated ES&S’s claim of verifiability in their own words, like my friend Gail, as if repetition of a silly argument could make it convincing.
Another example: ES&S’s pitch regarding the safety of barcodes. Barcoded ballots are safe, the sales pitch went, because:
- The programmer assigns each candidate a unique numeric code, based on that candidate’s location on the ballot. For example, the candidate whose oval is located in the 2nd column, 15th row, first side, first page of the ballot will be Candidate 021511.
- When the tabulator looks at a hand-marked ballot and sees a marked oval at that position, the tabulator will count a vote for Candidate 021511.
- When that same tabulator looks at a barcoded ballot and sees a barcode that translates into “021511,” the tabulator will count a vote for Candidate 021511.
In summary (ES&S says), hand-marked and bar-coded ballots are equally secure because the tabulator uses the same numeric code, whether it is reading from a marked oval or from a barcode.
This information—presented in a glossy, illustrated, full-color brochure—answered a question no one had asked and no one cares about. The problem has nothing to do with the numeric codes the tabulator uses to interpret ovals and barcodes.
The problem is that when counting a barcoded ballot, the tabulator looks at information no voter has verified, unlike when the voter and tabulator both look at the same marked oval.
Neither staff nor commissioners gave any sign they noticed the well-known marketing ploy: Distract the customer by talking about something else and pretend that addresses the concern. Gullible, eager-to-say-yes customers smile and nod.
This smile-and-nod process for approving voting equipment is hard to understand. I know the commissioners are capable of being tigers when it comes to security — of a different system. I’ve witnessed the commissioners asking serious, challenging follow-up questions—engaging their critical faculties—when working through security issues involving WisVote, our state’s voter-registration system.
During the weekend before their Tuesday meeting, Wisconsin Election Integrity participants had emailed the commissioners warning them of the security issues and asking them to stop certifying barcoding BMDs. Had we been raising security concerns about an issue with the WisVote system, I’m confident the commissioners’ response would have been to tell their staff to resolve the security issue.
But we were raising an alarm about tabulation-system security. So the commissioners’ response was to tell their staff to reassure voters there is no problem.
During a break, I tried briefly to engage one of the commissioners in a quick but serious discussion about voters’ inability to verify barcoded votes. The Commissioner ended the conversation with: “Well, it does take a leap of faith.”
I cannot imagine any of the Commissioners making a similar comment regarding voters’ ability to verify their registration records. Nor can I understand why they accept ‘leap of faith’ as sufficient for tabulation-system security.
If something requires a leap of faith, it’s not a good idea.