Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Quagmire or Quandary?

President Bush couldn’t say what needed to be said in his speech last night. He should have said something like this.

It is time for me to admit some mistakes and ask for your help. I was wrong to invade Iraq. I let myself get carried away and then made the decision to invade Iraq sound more necessary then it actually was. I did not intend to lie, but I did manipulate the truth to make my policies more politically palatable. I apologize to everyone that was called unpatriotic when they questioned my actions and policies. Sometimes the most patriotic act is to dissent. Questioning your loyalty was a cheap political move, but with your help I would like to put that in the past.

Secretary Powell’s Pottery Barn was analogy was correct. We have intervened in Iraq and it is now our responsibility, not the world’s, to see our actions to a successful conclusion. While I may have exaggerated some of the issues used to justify the war, I truly believe that Iraq, the Middle East and the world will be a better place when Iraq is a peaceful country well on the road to democracy.

As the President of the United States, I take responsibility for invading Iraq, but now we all have a moral responsibility to see it through to the end. So I ask all my fellow citizens to give me your support and prayers over the next difficult months and years. To our friends around the world, I also ask for your help. We need the help, ideas and resources of all countries that want to see a free and democratic Iraq. We need partners to succeed.

Finally to the brave mean and women of the armed forces and the families that wait for them, I asked you make sacrifices that I probably shouldn’t have. Every death and injury truly grieves me. But I also truly believe that if we hold to our ideals and purpose, the end will be worth all the sacrifices. You have given more than you’ve been asked, but now I have to ask for more. We need you to continue the excellent work you have been doing until we can turn Iraq back to the Iraqis. I can’t tell you how long that will take, but I will promise you that no one will fight harder for you and your families than me.

President Bush couldn't and wouldn't say this for political (domestic and international) and philosophical reasons, but I would liked to have heard it.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Fix Social Security By Decreasing Payroll Taxes

I've read several proposals for fixing social security. Most people understand that "fixing" means keeping social security solvent. Private accounts do nothing to keep social security solvent. They actually make the problem worse.

I suggest that we first require that the money the federal government "borrows" from the social security fund be treated like the rest of the national debt. It must be treated just as if it were borrowed from an individual or a foreign government. It would be subject to the debt ceiling so Congress would have to vote to increase the national debt to use it. This would make our current fiscal shenanigans more obviously unacceptable.

If we quit using the social security surpluses to fund current government operations, we could invest all that extra money in the stock market. We would have one big private account.

Better yet, why not face up to the reality that politicians have no self-control. Don't let there be a surplus in social security for them to spend. I suggest we increase the amount of wages subject to social security to $200,000. Then we decrease the social security tax rate to just bring in a little more than what we need to pay current benefits. Each year the Social Security Administration would recalculate the rate for the next year. While more affluent workers might pay more, lower paid workers would pay significantly less. With this additional money in the economy we might grow our way out of the problem.

Social Security Primer

Social Security has been a great program and needs to be continued. For many people who have no other income, it means a basic level of economic security that they can't outlive. For the more affluent it provides additional retirement income and a guaranteed income they also cannot outlive.

There is a great deal of confusion about the future of social security. The concept is simple, but the implementation has been perverted over the years. Just to make the issue more confusing, President Bush insists on linking private accounts with saving social security. This is not true, but many people haven't figured this out yet.

Here is how I understand social security works. It was designed as a pay as you go program. The payroll taxes that people pay do not go into a special account just for them. The money from their paycheck is used immediately to pay the retirement benefits for someone who has already retired. What they get for the money withheld from their wages is a promise that someone else will pay their retirement benefits when they finally retire. Actually, social security is more like an insurance program that pays you when and if you live long enough.

Of course, the problem is as time goes on more people are retiring than are joining the work force and paying social security taxes. When the amount of money needed to pay retirees each month is greater than the social security taxes collected that month, we have a problem. That scenario is estimated to occur about 2018.

Theoretically we won't have a problem until a much later date (maybe 2040?). That is because the amount of social security taxes workers and employers currently pay exceeds the amount needed to pay current retirees. This extra money is supposed to be saved and used when retirement benefits exceed the amount being collected from workers and employers.

Unfortunately the money is not really being saved in the social security fund. It is being "loaned" to the federal government and used to pay its current bills. The social security fund has the IOUs for this money, but when it comes time to start collecting it the money will already have been spent.. The government will have to repay the IOUs with other taxes (like income taxes). That means workers at this time will be paying benefits to retirees with their social security taxes and their income taxes. The amount of money needed to pay future retirees the amounts they've been promised is significant and will be a burden on workers in the future.

The two basic solutions are to raise taxes or cut benefits.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Margin of Mischief

Everyone understands the margin of error in a poll. Well the 2000 presidential election (and some claim the 2004 election) was won within the margin of mischief – that number of votes that result from voter registration mistakes, election errors, confusing ballots, election manipulation and fraud.

In school we learned how democracy is supposed to work. The person with the most votes wins, even if the margin of victory is only one vote. This naïve view of elections was destroyed by the presidential election of 2000.

It is vital that scientists, election officials, politicians and citizens work diligently to ensure that elections are fair, well run and accurate. When a government cannot accurately and fairly produce a tally of votes, democracy dies.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Punch Card Voting - Part 3

This is the third of three posts describing a proposal for using punch card ballot systems in US presidential elections. It will make more sense if you start with the post "Punch Card Voting Can Be Good" from June 3, 2005.

The ballot checking machines are separate from the punch card stations intentionally. This reduces the cost, because current punch card stations can continue to be used. This also provides another layer of security. All voting locations I’ve used have multiple punch card stations. Which one you get is usually randomly chosen. After you punch your ballot, you would pick one of several checking stations to review your ballot. This reduces the chances that the punch card station and the checking machine could be manipulated to record your vote incorrectly.

The checking machines would use a secure, electronic key to program how ballots are displayed and checked. It could also record votes and could be used to verify the results generated by the punch cards. The checking units could also be connected to the Internet. This would allow the ballot checking rules to be verified against the rules at a central location. Eventually votes could also be counted this way and the punch card would be used to verify the electronic count. The secure, electronic key and punch cards would also be backup if the internet connection goes down.

Poll workers will have test cards that they can use to verify that the checking machines are properly displaying the holes in a punched card.

This proposal still requires election officials to register voters, setup and monitor elections. It still requires voters to go to assigned voting locations and it still requires dedicated volunteers to work at polling locations to help voters and monitor the process. It does not seem unreasonable that a voter be required to go to a voting location on election day to cast their ballot.

People who know that they will not be able to go to their local polling location on election day may request that they be allowed to vote for president some reasonable number of days before election days at defined locations. These early voting locations would use the same procedures and equipment that will be used on election day.

A variation using scanned ballots could be implemented for people who are physically unable to go to an early voting location.

If you’ve made it this far, you are obviously interested in how to improve our election process. You probably have some unanswered questions. Some of you may see holes in my proposal and others will have improvements. This is certainly not the only way to have an accurate count and it may not be the best, but I hope that it convinces you that a solution is possible. The federal government needs to provide financial resources and standards so that a uniform method of voting can be implemented across the country. Local and state election officials will still run and monitor elections, but a common system will help restore confidence in the election process. We are now aware that our vote can be threatened by fraud, miscounting or mismanagement on the other side of the country.

Obviously this proposal does not address voter authentication. How do we insure that a voter is authorized to vote in any particular election and that the voter votes only once? I’m sure we can develop a solution. A national voter identification card might solve that problem, but we need a lot of discussion to make sure voter privacy is protected. Let’s hear from people with ideas on how to solve this problem. With a national voter identification card we could allow a voter to vote for presidential candidates at any polling place. I know that many voters expect that internet voting is the solution, but until we solve the voter authentication problem and other security issues, we need election monitors at polling places and physical ballots to insure an accurate and verifiable count.

Even if we implement a system that accurately counts every vote, we still have the Electoral College that makes some votes count more than others. I live in a state that has been a battle ground state. We get a lot more attention than states that are clearly red or blue. Even better, I know my vote is crucial. I think it is unfortunate that states that are clearly red or blue don't get the same attention. They are also welcome to their share of the political ads. More importantly, it is wrong that Republicans in a clearly blue state or Democrats in a clearly red state know that their presidential vote is inconsequential.

Equitable, accurate and fair elections are crucial to a democracy. It is time we make them happen.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Punch Card Voting - Part 2

This is a continuation from the prior post "Punch Card Voting Can Be Good".

After a voter has reviewed their punch card ballot at the checking station and their ballot is correct, the voter can press a button that will print a voting receipt that contains:
  • The current date and time.
  • A code that identifies this polling location.
  • A code that identifies the kind of ballot.
  • The unique ballot identifying number that was prepunched in the card. This code is not associated with the voter at the polling place.
  • An encrypted string of letters and numbers that records how they voted. Encrypted means the characters are meaningless without a special "key" that a computer can use to determine exactly how the ballot was punched. This is similar to the technology employed when you use a secure web site. The vote is encrypted using a technique that will result in different codes for ballots with the same combination of punches. Even if you and your neighbor cast votes for the same candidates, your codes would be different.
  • Other security codes like you see on your lottery tickets. These would be used to verify the authenticity of the receipt if the voter challenges how his or her ballot was counted.

Voters should check that the number on their ballot matches the number on their voting receipt, drop their ballot in the ballot box, take their voting receipt with them and file it in a safe location.

As the punch cards are processed and the votes are counted, the ballot identifier and votes cast are recorded in a database.

After the ballots have been counted, the voter can use the Internet to access an election board site and key in the characters that identify their physical ballot (plus part of the encrypted code to prevent people from viewing other voter's ballots). They will then see a screen that shows how that ballot was counted. Some voters may forget exactly how they voted. Some voters may, after the fact, even want to deny to themselves how they voted. In order to refresh their memory and convince themseleves that their vote was counted correctly, they can enter the second string of characters (their encrypted selections), their polling location code and ballot type, and see exactly how they voted that day. This check would not read their ballot from the database, it would use just the data on their "receipt". This must match the data stored in the database. If it doesn't, a fraud alert can be sent to the election board.

If there are voting irregularities, election officials can ask voters to check their ballot on-line and report discrepancies. They can also randomly select voters to voluntarily show them their voting receipt to verify it against the recorded values and the physical ballot. With this system the voters themselves become watchdogs. Fraud is easily identified and there is an audit trail to help determine what happened. Once it is known that ballots can be easily checked by voters and election officials, ballot fraud will diminish.

The unique identifier and database insures that a single ballot cannot be counted more than once. It can also be used on recounts to determine which ballots were counted differently on the recount by comparing the current selections on the ballot with those recorded on the first count. These misread ballots can then can be inspected manually to determine the problem.

I'll complete the description of this system in the next post.

Punch Card Voting Can Be Good

Most election boards are working feverishly to get rid of the punch card voting systems, but when you read about the new systems that are supposed to replace them, punch cards don't sound so bad. That is, if punch cards are part of a larger system.

Yes, I'm talking about the system that brought us hanging chad and pregnant dimples. By itself, the punch card is inadequate, but when properly punched it is easy and accurately counted. What it lacks is an easy way for voters to check that their card has been properly punched before they drop their card in the ballot box. It also lacks an easy method for voters and election officials to check ballots after the election.

The heart of this proposal (which is intended for presidential elections, but may be used for local elections)is an additional device that voters would use to check their ballots. After a voter punches their card, they put it into a reader that removes any hanging chad and then displays who the voter voted for. It will also warn them if they didn’t vote for any particular candidate (undervote) or if they voted for more than one candidate (an overvote that invalidates the entire ballot).

If they’ve unintentionally undervoted, they can put their card back in the voting machine and complete their ballot. If they intentionally didn’t vote for that candidate, they can just ignore the warning.

If they’ve overvoted or realized they voted for the wrong candidate, they can void this ballot and ask for a new one.

This solves the problem of voters knowing how their ballot will be counted before they leave the polling place. Once they confirm that their ballot is correct, they press a button to record their vote electronically and place the punch card ballot in the ballot box.

This additional machine would also print a "receipt" that a voter could later use to confirm how their ballot was actually counted. More on this later.