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How Humboldt County got to the cutting edge of election transparency

At 11:14 p.m. this past election night, Carolyn Crnich, the county clerk and registrar of voters, released her office's "Election Night Final Report." This report tallied the results from most — but not all — of the ballots cast, which was intriguing because one election in particular was a real nail-biter.

In the race for the board of the Northern Humboldt Union High School District, incumbent Colleen Toste and challenger Brian Lovell had easily secured two of the three available seats. The election night results for third place showed special education teacher Dana Silvernale with 2,429 votes, putting her just behind real estate agent and former triathlete Mike Pigg, who'd earned 2,475 votes. But provisional ballots, along with ballots hand-delivered to polling locations, had yet to be counted. They remained sealed in envelopes, awaiting signature verification before they could even be opened.

Those ballots proved pivotal. After every last one had been counted, Pigg had picked up 283 more votes for a total of 2,758. Silvernale picked up 350 votes, bringing her total to 2,779. She won the third and last available seat on the school board by just 21 votes, or 0.15 percent.

In squeaker elections such as this one, how can voters trust that the counts are accurate? It's a problem faced by election officials and activists throughout the country. Here in Humboldt, an endeavor called the Humboldt County Election Transparency Project has pioneered an approach that delivers a new level of accountability. It allows anyone with a computer to examine every single ballot cast.

I started volunteering for the project in 2007. Here's how it works: Volunteers scan each and every ballot using an off-the-shelf scanner. The scanner then prints numbers on the ballots so that the images can be checked against the original paper ballots. As an extra security measure, a computer program creates a digital signature that corresponds with each batch of image files. This ensures that any tampering with the image file will be detectible. And finally, the ballot images are released to the world, where people can count them manually or with any software they choose.

This level of accountability is important in the age of touchscreen voting and hackers. Kevin Collins, a commercial fisherman and the informal leader of the transparency group, approached Crnich a decade ago, concerned about the county switching to touchscreen "black box" voting machines. Collins, Crnich and others got together and came up with the idea of scanning the ballots. They linked up with others, including Tom Pinto of the District Attorney's office and this author.

According to Collins, Humboldt County now has an almost unprecedented level of accountability. In the rest of the country, he says, there's little if any ability to check whether each individual vote has been counted. "States with paper ballots that could be audited usually don't [do so]," he says, "and those that do [audit the ballots] have minimal requirements." In California, for example, only one percent of ballots have to be counted to verify election results. "The Humboldt Election Transparency Project allows for a 100 percent audit that can be done by any citizen," Collins says.

The transparency project made national news in the 2008 election when it discovered what's now called Diebold's "Deck Zero" bug, which caused the elections office to accidentally drop more than a hundred Eureka ballots from its count. The California Secretary of State's office investigated and eventually decertified the version of Diebold's election counting software that was in use in Humboldt. Crnich switched local elections to the Hart InterCivic system.

Since 2009, the transparency project and its members have received awards from the National Association of Secretaries of State, the Lori Grace Foundation for Election Integrity, the local branch of the ACLU and the local Civil Liberties Monitoring Project, among others. Bev Harris, founder of a national election integrity organization called Black Box Voting, calls the project "an important and groundbreaking improvement in election transparency." And she hopes it spreads. "This project shows that technology and transparency can work together for good governance."

Crnich feels much the same way. "I don't like saying to my constituents, 'Hey, just trust me,'" she's quoted as saying in a 2012 Palm Beach Post story. "Now, I don't have to. Count them yourself, and if you find anything out of the ordinary, I want to know."

After each election, the transparency project puts together DVDs with scans of the ballots, and they're available to anyone who wants them. I take a copy and run the images through independent counting software I've put together.

"This is not glamorous work," Collins points out. He says it takes up to 10 eight-hour days to run the ballots through an office scanner, with two-person teams working four-hour shifts. The project is always looking for more volunteers, especially people who are comfortable with computer programming and Linux, the open source operating system that runs the office scanner and counting software.

Of course, even this system isn't perfect. The transparency project gets the ballots after they've arrived at the elections offices, so it doesn't track the entire chain-of-custody. But then, neither do hand recounts. Still, Humboldt County is unique among jurisdictions in the United States because elections here are independently tabulated by people who don't work for the elections office.

How well does the system work? The good news is that my independent count of November's votes matches the official county results to within a vote or two in every contest. The better news is that if you don't want to take the elections office's word — or mine, for that matter — you can get the image files and count them yourself.

Mitch Trachtenberg is a local programmer and freelance writer.

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