This is a business proposal, may it be immodest. I tried to patent the idea, but I don’t have patience and experience. So I decided to post it in the “open source” fashion.

Importance of reliable counting of electoral votes is obvious from recent debacles in the United States and Ukraine. Many think that only paper ballot voting can be reliable, but my proposal seems to be not only faster and more accurate, but also more reliable and tamper-proof than paper ballot voting.

I propose to use magnetic cards for electoral voting as follows. Each vote has to be registered on a magnetic card in two ways: it has to be recorded in the magnetic strip, and it has to be printed out on a side of the magnetic card.

The voter can check his vote by inspecting the printed record. The final tally should rely on the printed records. Magnetic records are to be used for assisting the count.

Below the fold I describe essential features of the method. A more thorough description can be read here; it also presents back-up possibilities and flexible variantions.
A. Magnetic cards

Magnetic cards with printed records are used in transportation systems in some US cities, Japan, Belgium and probably many other places.

The main advantage of magnetic cards is that they are easy to handle by manual and automatic means.

There exists a patent for a voting system where magnetic cards with printed records are used. That patent suggests use of magnetic records for counting, whereas printed records are to be used for verification (if later required). That patent should not apply to voting systems where election results rely specifically on counting printed records.

As much as I know, magnetic cards with verifiable printed records on themselves were not used in elections yet.

B. The voting procedure

The voting procedure may look very usual.

First, a voter should be authenticated by election officials, and receive a magnetic card from them. One side of the card may contain official logos and instructions for voting. Other side of the card is for printing the vote(s).

Secondly, the voter goes into a voting booth, where a touch screen (or a computer, or a screen with a mouse or a light pen, etc.) and a magnetic card reader/writer are available. The voter makes his choice electronically and confirms them on the screen. The choice is recorded on the magnetic strip of the card, and printed out on the available side of the card. Then the card is ejected; the voter should check the printed form.

The most important requirement is that the printed form would be well-readable. Quality and correctness of the magnetic record is desirable chiefly for having a smooth counting process. There is no essential need for strict protection of magnetic records. Magnetic records may even be corrected later without objections.

Lastly (after leaving the booth with desired vote), the voter should insert the card into the voting urn and leave the voting area. The voting urn should be able to detect wrong cards and insertion of stacked cards. For convenience, the cards may be immediately stacked into special containers. As a rule of thumb, no one should be allowed to leave the voting area without submitting a card.

C. The counting procedure

This is the essential new contribution. For simplicity, we assume here that the magnetic cards record votes for one nomination. For variations and back-up possibilities, see the more thorough description.

In principle, the count of submitted votes can be done in three steps:

  1. Sorting the cards by magnetic records, so that cards with the same vote are stacked together.
  2. Checking the sorted stacks by visually inspecting printed forms.
  3. Counting stacks of cards with the same vote.

These three steps can be done with assistance of different machines. I do not specify their construction, but note that structure of assisting machines does not have to be complicated. Magnetic records have to be read only by sorting machines. Assisting machines for checking and counting can be purely mechanical in principle. There is no need for associating a computer or ample memory device with these machines. Their interior can be mechanically simple, so that election officials with common knowledge of mechanical devices could reliably inspect them.

Magnetic cards can be transported between different machines in special containers or container frames, so to minimize human manipulation. It is acceptable to touch or inspect cards in a container frame, but it should be impossible to take any cards out. Most care should be taken that cards would not be spread (accidentally or possibly intentionally) over the floor.

The sorting machine should have at least 3 compartments for sorted cards (at least 2 for major candidates, and 1 for other). The compartments do not have to be of equal capacity. Manufacturers should foresee the possibility of overflow of cards with the same vote. If there is a compartment with different votes, those votes may be sorted in other run or handled manually.

Checking the sorted votes is most likely the most time consuming part of the process. Suppose that a stack of cards with votes for candidate X is being checked. It is most convenient if the printed name of X is supposed to appear at the same position on each card. Then a mechanical device can assist counting by putting each card from the sorted stack in front of eyes of a counting person for about a second. A light marker may highlight the position for the name of X. In this way the counting person does not have to concentrate on the flow of cards, he/she should just follow continuous appearance of the name of X at the highlighted position. If a wrong name occurs in the highlighted position, the assisting machine should be stopped and the wrong card should be manually examined. These stops are supposed to occur rarely.

Probably, the described checking process can be speeded up so that each card is shown just for a fraction of a second, if other possible names in the place of X are visibly different. (If there are candidates with similar names, their names may artificially be printed with different fonts or at perceivably different position, etc.) The light marker may be momentarily and synchronically switched off and on while the card under view is being replaced by the next one, so that the highlighted name of X would appear continuously as long as there are no erroneous cards. If there is an error, the checking person(s) should notice the momentarily change of the printed record. Then the last few displayed cards should be checked. Officials should test human alertness and adjust the speed of the assisting machine beforehand.

Once all sorted votes for the same nomination are checked and sorting errors are rectified, stacks with the same votes should be counted. Counting persons or devices do not need to know what choice is recorded on the cards of a stack offered to them. One way to count the checked cards handily is to load them into container frames of fixed capacity (say, 100). Then counting persons have just to check whether those container frames are filled properly, and to count the container frames. Partially filled container frames should be taken into consideration. If container frames can be firmly stacked in a rectangular fashion, they can be counted by using mathematical multiplication.

It may be acceptable to trust the count of cards with the same vote to a simple mechanical device, reminiscent to a money counting machine. In this way, the only human involvement in the whole process is checking sorted cards.

D. Conclusions

The proposed voting method is fast and reliable, perhaps more reliable than any other known method. Just as with paper ballot voting, votes have physical form, and voters are ensured that their intended votes are counted. The advantage is that cards are easier to handle manually and automatically. There are many ways to assist the human count by simple machines. Each step and the whole procedure can be carefully specified, to avoid ambiguous handling and abuse of authority.  

The proposed method avoids highly criticized drawbacks of purely electronic voting, such as the uncertainty whether voter’s choice is properly recorded and manipulated. There is no need for checking potentially ambiguous software code, to distrust manufacturers and vendors of voting machines, or to suspect hacking. Correctness of electronic manipulations (by the voting machine in the booth and sorting machinery) is not essential; it is desirable only to ensure smooth counting process. The method does not require rather awkward paper trails. Accurate results can be highly expected.

The sorting, checking and counting machines may involve marginal amount of electronics, and they can have simple and unambiguous mechanics. The voting method offers favorite conditions for multisided observation. Direct human touch can be greatly minimized; is necessary only for dealing with wrongly sorted cards.  Partisan manipulation of votes should be very difficult.

There should be big political interest to implement this method. This may offer big commercial opportunities for manufacturers of voting machines and magnetic cards (and machines dealing with cards). I would be very interested if anyone would try to implement the method, or build equipment for it.

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