Google Launches Voter Info Tool

October 31, 2012

In a post on the Official Google Blog, the company has announced the availability of a new Voter Information Tool.   Obviously, its main current focus is on the upcoming US presidential election, but there is information on other countries as well.  I’ll focus on the US content, since that’s the part I know a little about.

The tool offers a Google Maps style lookup for your polling place, given your address as a registered voter.  In Virginia, where I live, this currently doesn’t produce anything useful; I suspect this is because, in Virginia, polling places are assigned by the local (county) Board of Elections, and Google hasn’t incorporated all that information.  It also shows a ballot summary of all the candidates, and their party affiliations, for the national election races (in this case, the races for President, one US Senator, and US Representative).  Once I had put in my address, it located me in the right election district without any trouble.   Helpfully, it gives the address, phone number, and Web link for the local Board of Elections, and also has links to candidates’ Web sites, and other sources of election information.

The tool, which is open-source, can be embedded on another Web site if desired; there is also a Civic Information API that can be used to develop new applications.


Detecting Election Fraud

October 3, 2012

As I’m sure readers know, this is a presidential election year in the United States.  (There are also elections for members of the House of Representatives and for some Senate seats.)   A side attraction in this year’s festivities is an ongoing political and legal tussle over the attempts, in some states, to impose more stringent identification requirements for those wishing to vote.  Proponents of these measures argue that they are necessary to prevent election fraud.   Actual evidence that this occurs, at least in the form (impersonation) that these measures would address, is in remarkably short supply.  Nonetheless, it does prompt the question: how can election fraud be detected?

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences recently published a paper [abstract, full PDF download available], that takes an interesting new approach to this question.   The authors (Peter Klimek, Yuri Yegorov, Rudolf Hanel, and Stefan Thurner) write:

Democratic societies are built around the principle of free and fair elections, and that each citizen’s vote should count equally. National elections can be regarded as large-scale social experiments, where people are grouped into usually large numbers of electoral districts and vote according to their preferences. The large number of samples implies statistical consequences for the polling results, which can be used to identify election irregularities.

There have, of course, been previous studies that used statistical methods to try to uncover election fraud.  (I wrote about an analysis of Iranian election results, back in 2009, that used Benford’s Law, and similar techniques.)  The authors of the current paper argue that these generally have two drawbacks.

  • They can provide a strong suggestion of fraud; however, since there is no theory of how particular types of fraud (e.g., ballot box stuffing) should change the results, they are far from conclusive.
  • The results may vary depending on the degree to which the election data are aggregated (for example, the size of the voting precincts).

To address these concerns, they develop a parameterized model for the distribution of several election variables (e.g., voter turnout).  This allows them to predict the effect that ballot stuffing should have on the results.  In particular, they find that the distribution of results should have higher kurtosis† in a fraudulent election.   When tested against real-world election data, the model seems to work well across a range of aggregation levels.

This is a fascinating area of research.  The success of techniques of this kind (which have also been used to help spot financial fraud) depends, at least in part, on people’s lack of intuition about seemingly random phenomena, and on their general inability to construct a convincing fake.

____

Kurtosis is a statistical measure of the shape of a distribution, in particular the degree to which it is “peaked” around the mean.  (The word comes from the Greek κυρτόσ, meaning “bulging”.)  The most common measure, based on the fourth moment of the distribution, is “excess kurtosis” relative to the normal (Gaussian) distribution.  A distribution with positive excess kurtosis has a narrower, more acute central “hump” and fatter tails than the normal distribution, and is called leptokurtic; the Poisson distribution is an example.  A distribution with negative excess kurtosis, called platykurtic, has a wider, less pronounced hump, and thinner tails; the uniform distribution is an example.


Voting Preparation Report Card

August 7, 2012

Readers, at least those in the United States who have not been living at the bottom of an abandoned mine, are doubtless well, even painfully, aware that there is a presidential election coming up this November.   When the election takes place, voters here in northern Virginia, and in many other jurisdictions, will cast their ballots using electronic voting machines.

I’ve written before about these machines, and some of their many security and privacy issues.   Researchers affiliated with  Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy [CITP] have, with trivial effort, redeployed a Sequoia AVC Edge voting machine to play the classic arcade game, PacMan.   The same group also managed to hack a test of a proposed Internet voting system for Washington DC; many jurisdictions are considering these as a replacement for traditional absentee ballots (e.g., for military personnel deployed overseas).

In addition to the numerous technical issues these new technologies raise, there is a cultural / human element to be considered.  The average election judge probably can understand the security model of traditional paper ballots without too much trouble; that same election judge, in most circumstances, will be more or less clueless about the security issues involved with electronic voting.

All of this argues for a thorough examination of these new systems.  An article at Technology Review reports that a group of authors, from the Verified Voting Foundation, the Rutgers Law School Constitutional Litigation Clinic, and Common Cause, have published an evaluation of how well prepared the states are to deal with voting machine problems.  The study evaluates states on the basis of five criteria:

  1. Does the state require paper ballots or records of every vote?
  2. Does the state have adequate contingency plans at each polling place in the event of machine failure?
  3. Does the state protect military and overseas voters by ensuring that marked ballots are not cast online?
  4. Has the state instituted a post-election audit that can determine whether the electronically reported outcomes are correct?
  5. Does the state use robust ballot reconciliation and tabulation practices?

The report ranks states in five categories (inadequate, needs improvement, generally good, good and excellent), based on these criteria.  The full report is available here [PDF]; there is also an executive summary [PDF].  No state received an Excellent rating, but a few states were given Good ratings.

We determined that five states – Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin – are the best prepared to catch voting system problems and to protect voters from disenfranchisement due to equipment failures.

New York state was also rated Good.  On the other hand, Delaware, Louisiana, and Mississippi were rated Inadequate.

The authors hope that the report will serve as a source of information on best practices for election planning.

We hope that this report serves as a resource guide to election officials, policy makers and concerned citizens alike. Election officials can see and discuss what their peers across the nation are doing to make elections secure and reliable. Similarly, citizens can work with election officials to implement the best practices discussed in the report.

I hope so, too, although I confess that I am not holding my breath.


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