Freshman Seminar 125
Election Machinery
Andrew W. Appel

Fall 2004

General Information | Schedule and Readings | Assignments

Course Description. If you voted in a U.S. election 60 years ago, you would sign the voter rolls in full view of a county employee and a pollwatcher from each political party; you would be given a paper ballot, which you would take into a booth and mark with X's; you would come out of the booth and (in full view of the clerk and the pollwatchers) deposit it into a sealed ballot box. This process was carefully designed (or evolved) to prevent fraud. But counting paper ballots is slow and messy. If you voted 10 years ago, you'd use punch-cards, or optical-scan ballots, or mechanical lever machines, each with its own protocol to deter and detect fraud.

In 2004 a third of the country is likely to vote on electronic touch-screen machines that electronically tabulate votes without needing paper or punch-cards. How can such systems be protected against electoral fraud, or even against run-of-the-mill programming errors? If you've ever used computer software, you know it often malfunctions. On the other hand, what is it about the design and context of ATM's that makes them trustworthy?

We can treat this question as a problem in computer security--that is, we can apply the standard techniques of cryptographic authentication that are used by your web browser when you make purchases over the Internet. But to analyze such problems and solutions we need to know the larger context: who is protecting what from whom; who trusts whom; what goals are to be achieved; who has access to the physical computer; and so on. Therefore, to study "election machinery" such as a particular manufacturer's touch-screen machine (for example), it's necessary to study "election machinery" in the form of election officials, poll watchers, county clerks, laws concerning when and how recounts are conducted, and so on.

But to study "election machinery" in the form of "how American localities conduct and regulate elections", it's necessary to ask, "why are these regulations in place?" For example, why do we have the secret ballot? Why are there pollwatchers sitting at every polling place, next to the election clerk?

Many of these procedures were established in direct response to specific kinds of abuse that have occurred in the past; so a student of election procedures should ask, "historically, is it true that people will cheat in elections (stuff ballot boxes, etc.) if given the chance?" This leads directly to "election machinery" in the form of the Tammany hall "machine" of the 1890s, and the Chicago "machine" of the 1950s.

These concerns are not just historical. Election officials all around the world are trying to design new protocols consistent with the technology of the twenty-first century. They're spending real money on real machines. Should they rely on the experts to tell them what to do, or can a group of intelligent, informed citizens study the problem for one semester and come up with reasonable and convincing recommendations?

Prerequisite: You must have, at least once, written a computer program.

General Information

Seminar: Monday 1:30-4:20, Mathey College (Joline Hall 125)
Professor: Andrew W. Appel, appel+frs@cs

Textbook information: click here