Software audits voting results in time for elections officials to fix problems before results are certified. Trials begin in Florida, New York, and New Hampshire in November.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

October 10, 2012

5 Min Read

Social Studies: Obama vs. Romney

Social Studies: Obama vs. Romney

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How can election officials verify that they've correctly counted all of the votes cast in a local, state, or federal election, for example to select the next U.S. president?

Three-year-old software company Clear Ballot wants to help, by providing precincts with technology that generates an independent audit of voting results before the election must be legally certified by the election department. "Think of [certification] as a legal safe harbor for an election department to find and fix any issues that may have arisen, ether due to clerical error or machine error," said Larry Moore, CEO and founder of Clear Ballot--and also a force behind the launch of Lotus Notes--by phone.

The window for certifying elections varies by state. In Florida, for example, it's seven days, while in California it's four weeks. "After the certification, it takes an order of a judge to go back," he said. "So our design goal is to be able to completely confirm the election within the tightest of certification windows."

Why audit elections? Moore said he founded Clear Ballot after seeing a "disturbing" Emmy-award-nominated 2006 HBO documentary called Hacking Democracy. "What I didn't realize at the time was that the voting system is computers. We all know about computers, and the vulnerabilities that computers can have to inside and outside attacks," he said. "And while I feel after being in this [field] for three years that that's a relatively rare occurrence, the threat still exists."

[ Get some tips for following the presidential election season. See Social Media Guide To The Presidential Debates. ]

While hacking voting systems is a potential concern, so are user errors. For example, an audit of a March 13, 2012, election in Wellington, Fla., triggered a recount, which found that votes for two candidates--in two different elections--had been accidentally switched. As a result, election officials had declared the wrong winners in two different races, reported The Palm Beach Post. "It was by pure chance that this was caught," said Moore.

Another threat to the voting process is legitimacy, and proving to voters that their ballots were counted accurately. For example, a June 2012 poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports found that 50% of U.S. voters don't think elections are fair to voters.

But when a ballot goes through a voting system, the optical scanning machine "counts" vote totals, discarding results that it can't read. "A voting system would look at that [data] and not allow you to review it," said Jordan Esten, director of business development for Clear Ballot, speaking by phone.

That's why conducting a full-fledged recount of an election--or even an audit, using a sample of ballots cast--is so time-consuming. First, all relevant cast ballots must be located for a given precinct, and they might be spread between hundreds of different ballot boxes. The recount must also involve absentee ballots and, in some states, early voting. Each ballot must then be reviewed by hand, and questionable marks might be subject to further review or debate. Cue days or weeks of work, not to mention related expenses.

Clear Vote
Voter Intent Isn't Always Clear In comparison to that approach, Clear Ballot's software looks at the entire ballot as if it were a graphical image, and then examines how the marks look, as well as where they're placed. Clear Ballot's software then groups all votes into one of four categories: votes (only one candidate has been selected, and the mark is clear), over votes (people have voted for more than one candidate for the same post), under votes (nothing selected), and non-votes (either there are no marks for a candidate, or the marks are unclear). The software then presents this information to a user, allowing them to rapidly review--visually--all questionable votes, as well as to designate which, if any, should be counted as actual votes, and which should be discarded.

"Here's the claim we make: that an ordinary citizen with just a little bit of orientation can determine for themselves the exact count for a given candidate in under a minute," said Moore. "So that becomes our audit: We bring the human element back into efficiently deciding voter intent."

Moore said that the Clear Ballot software can currently process and create visualizations for about a quarter-million votes in just one minute. Doing a manual recount of all of those ballots by hand, however, would generally take one month.

What types of voting technology can be audited by Clear Ballot? Its software works with optically scanned paper ballots, but not with touchscreen voting machines, which don't leave an audit trail. "That's the problem with touchscreens, there's really no way to audit them," said Moore. "But 75% of the country--and growing--is moving over to optically scanned paper ballots. So what we have in this country is a growing, verifiable election methodology that's not being routinely verified, and one of the reasons it's not been routinely verified is there's been no classical methodology for doing that, other than a very small, random, handout example."

The Clear Ballot software isn't yet available for commercial release, but the latest round of pilots will take place next month in parts of New York, New Hampshire, as well as in Florida, where the company will be "processing about 1.8 million pages," said Moore. "This will be the mother of all pilots."

About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz


Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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