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Dan Wallach

Our poor old voting machines

They really do need to be retired.

A national spotlight fell on Texas’ voting equipment last week after some voters complained that their votes on electronic voting machines had changed.

State election officials chalked it up to user error.

Critics alleged malfeasance or a software bug.

The Austin-based company behind the machines says an important piece of context is missing from this debate: these machines are 16 years old.

“It’s very much like someone calling Apple and asking for support on their iPhone 1,” said Steven Sockwell, vice president of marketing at Hart InterCivic.

Most Texas counties last upgraded their electronic voting machines well over a decade ago, tapping billions in funds Congress approved to upgrade voting equipment around the country following election irregularities during the 2000 presidential election. Dozens of Texas counties purchased Hart’s eSlate machines.

[…]

While Sockwell said that the eSlate machines “have not been performing any differently” than they have in previous elections, he said it is time for municipalities to upgrade to Hart’s newer voter system, which is called Verity. The eSlate machines generally have a lifespan of between 10 and 15 years, he said, though he added that they do not stop working after 15 years.

[Rice computer science professor Dan] Wallach said that he is surprised that Texas’ eSlate machines have lasted as long as they have.

“We’ve got eSlates that are over 10 years old and in some cases approaching 20 years,” Wallach said. “Normally, computers don’t last that long.”

See here for the background. For the record, the first iPhones came out in 2007, so these machines are mostly at least five years older than that. However you view their utility and security today, the day is coming – likely soon – when we will have no choice but to replace these machines. At some point, they’re just not going to work anymore.

Yeah, we’re still talking about the risk to our elections

And when we talk about these things, we talk to Dan Wallach.

When we think about those who defend the territorial integrity of our nation and state, we tend to imagine well-equipped members of the U.S. armed forces, or perhaps a square-jawed detachment of Texas Rangers. Increasingly, however, the twenty-first century battle for control of the American homeland is being fought in the computerized elections systems overseen by our humble county clerks.

Here in Texas, votes in federal and state elections are tallied independently by 254 local officials, one in each county seat, from big cities like Houston and Dallas to tiny courthouse towns like Tahoka and Floydada. If a hostile country decides to hack an election in Texas, that means pitting Russia’s (or Iran’s or North Korea’s or China’s) most skilled hackers against a group of officials and volunteers who may not even know their way around an iPhone.

“We’re asking county clerks, and for that matter local poll workers, to defend against a nation-state adversary,” says Dan Wallach, computer science professor at Rice and expert on election security issues. “That’s not a fair fight.”

Wallach, a graduate of J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson as well as U.C. Berkeley and Princeton, has made it his mission to assist local election administrators by helping to develop and advocate for the adoption of foolproof, verifiable election systems and policies in Texas. From 2011 to 2015, Wallach served on the U.S. Air Force Scientific Advisory Board; before that he led the National Science Foundation–funded ACCURATE (A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable, and Transparent Elections). Most recently, he’s been seen testifying before the Texas Senate on issues related to election security.

“From a security perspective, the systems that we use, these electronic voting systems, were never engineered with the threat model of foreign nation-state actors,” Wallach says of the status quo in Texas. “I have no idea if anybody’s planning to exploit them, but there’s no question that the vulnerabilities are present.”

That’s the bad news. The good news is that remedies are within reach, if Texas is willing to invest money and other state-level resources to improve election security. Experts like Wallach have identified best practices that can make elections reliably secure for the current threat horizon. Wallach proposes what amounts to a three-step plan for improved election security: better machines, better oversight, and better contingency planning.

The rest of the story delves into those three steps; it begins of course with auditable voting machines that include printed ballots. Speaking from my perspective in the IT security field, I can confirm that every big company that wants to stay in business past tomorrow zealously captures, indexes, and monitors its systems’ log files, both to look for real-time anomalies and to provide a written record of what happened in the event of a breach or other failure. It’s just standard practice in the real world. Why our state government is so resistant to it for our election systems is a question for which they really need to be held accountable. I would also note that the $350 million price tag to replace every obsolete voting machine in the state, which apparently we can’t do unless the feds pick up the tab, is something we could easily afford if we wanted to do it. For now, assuming we don’t get a state government that’s willing to do this, our best bet is to work towards a federal government that will do it, presumably after 2020. And hope like hell in the meantime that nothing goes horribly wrong.

The power to pay more for electricity

Deregulation really does create jobs.

When Texas deregulated electricity markets 16 years ago, the Public Utility Commission created the website Power to Choose to help consumers through the power buying experience. But what was promoted as an easy, free way for Texans to pick electricity providers has turned into a such a complex and confounding experience that it is spawning a cottage industry to help consumers navigate the scores of companies and hundreds of plans available.

At least five companies in Texas are providing both free and paid services aimed at helping consumers in Houston and other deregulated markets decipher confusing electricity offers such as free nights and weekends, multi-tiered pricing plans, and credits for high electricity use.

The companies have built computer algorithms that try to ferret out the best deals based on factors such as past electricity consumption, home size, and the number of people living there. In some cases, it’s just a matter of plugging in your monthly electricity into a website calculator. Others provide more comprehensive services, charging a monthly fee to advise customers which plan will save them the most money and then monitor the market so if prices fall, consumers can switch.

This kind of hand-holding is akin to car buying services, which save customers the time, energy and aggravation researching models, doing comparison shopping and negotiating prices. But unlike cars, there’s no difference in the electricity provided by different retailers, making the emergence of these power buying services a sure sign of the complexity of the system.

“The third party guys demonstrate the consumer is getting ripped off by the Power to Choose artificial configuration that the Public Utility Commission has rammed down the throat of Texas consumers,” said Ed Hirs, energy economist at the University of Houston.

The Public Utility Commission recently recognized the shortcomings of Power to Choose, with chairman DeAnn Walker criticizing retail electric providers for misleading pricing plans. Those plans offer rock-bottom rates at 1,000 kilowatt hours, but if consumers use just one kilowatt hour more, the price per kilowatt hour can jump as much as 10 times.

[…]

Jesson Bradshaw, a power industry veteran, saw an opportunity when his friends and family asked him which company they should sign up with for electricity. He sent them to Power to Choose, but he quickly heard complaints.

“I saw how confusing it was,” said Bradshaw, who worked as a power trader and owned the retail power company Amigo Energy until he sold it to Just Energy in 2011.

Four years ago, he and a partner launched the buying service Energy Ogre. The company charges customers $10 each month to find the lowest price plan and monitor rates to see if it makes sense to switch mid-contract. It doesn’t take commissions from power providers.

Bradshaw said his business is not exactly popular among the retail providers, many of which bet that customers won’t shop for better rates when contracts expire.

“They don’t like us informing the customer,” he said. “ If there is a better rate, we move them. We don’t care which provider.”

Mark Axford of Sugar Land signed up with Energy Ogre about three years ago. Axford said the company switches electricity providers at least once a year and makes sure Axford and his wife do not get hit with penalties. The monthly fee is well worth it, he said.

If you want to save, you have to shop, said Axford. “But who has the time to keep shopping for electricity?”

The trade association for retail electricity providers in Texas said it recognizes that the buying services may help customers sort through offers. But it’s important to note, said Julia Rathgeber, president of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, that these companies are not subject to oversight by the Public Utility Commission. It’s still up to consumers to decide whether plans are right for them, she said.

Got that? If you’re paying too much for electricity, it’s your own damn fault. Never mind how confusing or time consuming the shopping process is. There’s no reason I can think of why the state couldn’t provide, for free, the kind of easy, at-your-fingertips information that these entrepreneurs have done. Why wouldn’t we want to do that, if the goal of deregulation was to lower prices for consumers? The answer to that is left as an exercise for the reader. In the meantime, here’s the sidebar that tells you how to find the best deal for yourself:

MORE INFORMATION
Companies that help consumers find the best power deals:

Texas Power Guide

Website: TexasPowerGuide.com

Awesome Power Texas

Website: AwesomePowerTexas.com

Geek Your Rate

Website: GeekYourRate.com

Energy Ogre

Website: EnergyOgre.com

Real Simple Energy

Website: RealSimpleEnergy.com

You might also want to go back and look at some guest posts my friend Dan Wallach wrote about picking power plans. Good luck.

Stanart pushes back on election security claims

Our County Clerk is not happy with recent stories about the potential for vulnerability in our election systems.

Despite reports from federal intelligence agencies and media outlets of Russia’s widespread targeting of state and local elections around the country and in Texas, election administrators in the nation’s third-largest county say Vladimir Putin’s government does not pose a unique or heightened cybersecurity threat.

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart said his office, which runs local elections, has a slew of checks in place to prevent hackers from tampering with the vote, including multiple backed-up voter registration databases that are kept offline. He said reports produced by voting machines before every election ensure the machines do not come pre-loaded with votes and after the election allow the county to cross-check against final tallies to make sure the vote is not manipulated.

While most observers and experts agree Russia exemplifies a new threat to election infrastructure nationwide, Stanart said the county faces no greater risk from Russia today than threats going back to the 1980s. He also challenged the veracity of reports that the Kremlin had attempted to coordinate widespread attacks on state and local election systems in 2016.

“Where’s the evidence?” Stanart said. “I would really question that.”

[…]

Bloomberg reported in June that Russian hackers “hit” voter databases and software systems in 39 states, in some cases penetrating campaign finance databases and software used by poll workers, and attempted to alter or delete voter data in Illinois.

Also last month, the Dallas Morning News published a story that election officials there had found attempts to hack their election system ahead of the November election. The newspaper reported that election officials there cross-referenced hundreds of suspicious or possibly Russian-linked IP addresses provided to them by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security against those that had attempted to access Dallas County servers in early October and found 17 matches.

Stanart said his office has not seen that list of IP addresses. Dallas County election officials did not respond to a request for comment.

[…]

Harris County officials refuse to answer whether they saw any attempts to penetrate the county’s systems. While Stanart himself said he has not found that Russian-linked hackers targeted the local election system, he acknowledged that other county security officials could have found and stopped such attempts before they reached his office.

Those officials repeatedly have not answered questions about whether they saw such a threat.

Bruce High, the chief information officer and executive director of the county’s Central Technology Services, has acknowledged a recent “spike” in attempts to hack Harris County servers from outside of America’s borders, but has declined to explain when the spike began, what is being targeted and where the hack attempts are coming from.

See here for the background. I received some feedback from the County Clerk’s office following the publication of that piece, including a fuller response from Stan Stanart that I believe is intended to be an op-ed in the Chronicle that specifically disputed several of the claims made by Dan Wallach. I’m printing it here beneath the fold for your perusal. Beyond that, I don’t understand why the County Clerk says it has not seen the aforementioned list of Russian IP addresses, nor do I understand the reluctance by Harris County to discuss their cybersecurity measures in any depth. I don’t expect them to lay out their defense plans in detail, but some reassurance beyond “trust me” that they’re on the job would be nice. Maybe trot someone out who can at least speak the lingo or something like that, I don’t know. This is a legitimate thing for voters to be concerned about, and we have a right to expect those concerns to be addressed in a more responsive fashion than what we are getting.

(more…)

Was the Harris County election system hacked?

Wouldn’t you like to know?

Despite widespread alarm over the breadth of Russian cyber attacks on state and local election systems last year, including revelations of Dallas County being targeted, Harris County officials are refusing to say whether hackers similarly took aim at the nation’s third-largest county.

Releasing information on whether Harris County election systems saw attacks from Russian hackers would threaten the county’s cyber security by emboldening hackers to further target local systems, county officials said this week.

The county’s argument was dismissed by experts, who said the secrecy is unnecessary, and could actually downplay the seriousness of the threat and the resources needed to combat it.

“There’s this concept in security called ‘security through obscurity,’ sort of, if they don’t know about it they won’t come after it,” said Pamela Smith, a consultant at Verified Voting, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that promotes voting integrity. “But to really have robust security, you want people to be able to know that it’s there … I think what the public wants to know is that you’re aware of the threat and you’re taking steps to mitigate.”

Bruce High, the chief information officer and executive director of the county’s Central Technology Services, said Harris County overall sees on average more than a million hack attempts every day. He even acknowledged a recent “spike” in attempts to hack Harris County servers from outside of America’s borders.

[…]

Dan Wallach, a Rice University computer science professor and scholar at the Baker Institute for Public Policy, who has testified before Congress about the cyber security threat to elections, said that to an advanced threat like Russia, there likely are no secrets about Harris County elections.

Asked if Harris County had been targeted in a similar manner as Dallas County, High said the county had not received a list of IP addresses from the Department of Homeland Security. He added that both the FBI and the Homeland Security department will flag Harris County when they have concerns about specific IP addresses.

High did not respond to questions seeking details on how often such concerns are brought up, how big of a “spike” in hacking attempts the county was experiencing and over what period of time, whether that spike was election-related or which systems had been targeted.

Wallach said he was concerned about the ability of many local jurisdictions, including Harris County, to protect against a targeted threat from an advanced adversary like Russia. He said he believed it was probable that Russia had at least targeted Harris County servers, but also that in many cases, attackers are so sophisticated that local officials would not even know that their systems had been breached.

“The category of adversary we’re facing now is not something that Harris County government is equipped to deal with,” Wallach said.

I work in IT security and had a few thoughts about this, but then I saw that Dan wrote this piece with a much deeper analysis than I had done, and I figured it was better to outsource this to him.

Computer security experts who deal with nation-state activities use the term “advanced persistent threats” (APT) as a shorthand to indicate that our adversaries have significant capabilities, including both engineering resources and spycraft, to quietly break into our computers, spread out across our networks, and avoid detection. It’s common for APT attacks to last for months to years prior to detection.

Given these threats, we need to conduct a serious analysis of where our elections stand. Harris County’s Hart InterCivic eSlate voting machines, for example, haven’t had any major security updates following studies conducted a decade ago by the states of California and Ohio. (I was part of the California effort.) In short, an attacker need only tamper with a single voting machine. After that, the infection can spread “virally” to every machine in the county.

Compounding the problem, all of our vote-tabulating systems are running Windows 2000, for which Microsoft dropped all software support, including security patches, seven years ago.

In the lead-up to the 2018 election, it may be financially infeasible for a complete replacement of our voting machines. We only just recently purchased our voting machines after a 2010 warehouse fire destroyed our original fleet of eSlate machines, so the funds aren’t likely to be available so soon for replacements.

What’s clearly necessary, since we know the Russians targeted voter registration systems, is a major upgrade to the way our voter registration systems are managed. A redesigned system would still, by necessity, require Internet connections so voters can verify their correct polling places, see sample ballots, and so forth. Most notably, during our early voting period, we need an online database to track which voters have cast ballots.

A modern design, intended to operate even if the entire Internet failed while the election was ongoing, would involve making local copies of the database at every voting center. Unsurprisingly, the needs of Harris County are essentially the same as the needs for every other county in our state, suggesting that a state-level procurement could be an efficient way to improve the voter registration security for every county’s voters.

Another short-term recommendation will be for Harris County to upgrade its systems to the latest versions of Microsoft’s operating systems, even though this will require a waiver from Texas’s election certification requirements. Even though our vote tabulation systems are hopefully never connected to the Internet, they are nonetheless unacceptably weak in the present threat environment.

Likewise, Harris County needs to hire a professional security “penetration testing” firm to identify other soft points in its infrastructure and prioritize repairs; such consultants need to be brought in on a regular basis for check-up exams. We also need forensic security auditors to do a deep dive into our county’s existing systems to make sure they’re as clean as we hope them to be. This isn’t just a matter of running some anti-virus scanner, since APT adversaries use tricks that automated scanners won’t detect.

There’s more, so go read the whole thing. At the very least, I hope we can all agree that any system that is still using Windows 2000 (!!!) needs to be upgraded or replaced. Dan (who as you know is a friend of mine) puts in a plug for the STAR-Vote system that he helped design, and it’s definitely something the county and the state should consider. I just hope we take this seriously before something bad happens.

UPDATE: Hector DeLeon, the Director of Communications and Voter Outreach for the County Clerk, has emailed me to say that the county tabulation system is running on Windows 7, not Windows 2000 as stated in Wallach’s op-ed. He says they have made this same correction to the Chronicle as well. My apologies for the confusion.

More on the STAR Voting System

The Chron updates us on the latest in modern voting technology.

The drumbeat of election rigging and foreign hacking of voting machines have energized ongoing efforts to develop a new model of digital election equipment designed to produce instantly verifiable results and dual records for security.

Election experts say this emerging system, one of three publicly funded voting machine projects across the country, shows potential to help restore confidence in the country’s election infrastructure, most of which hasn’t been updated in more than a decade.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s taken years and years to get it done,” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk and leader of the voting machine project. “Now that we’ve had this election, there’s renewed interest.”

A prototype of the system, dubbed STAR Vote, sits in an engineering lab at Rice University, and bidding is open for manufacturers who want to produce it wholesale. Similar efforts to innovate voting systems are in the works in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“County clerks in these jurisdictions are the rock stars of running elections,” said Joe Kiniry, CEO of Free & Fair, an election systems supplier currently bidding on contracts to manufacture the designs of both Travis and Los Angeles counties. “If they have success in what they do, it will have, in my opinion, a massive impact on the whole U.S.”

Like any aging digital device, the voting machines are eventually bound to stumble, said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. He pointed to Detroit, where the number of votes counted didn’t match the number of voters who signed in. And he noted that reports of machines flipping votes more likely result from aged touch screens than a conspiracy to rig the election.

Yet there is seldom space in county budgets to replace the machines, which cost usually between $3,000 and $5,000 each. The vast majority of electronic voting equipment was purchased with federal funds from the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Most money reached the states by 2004, and there’s no foreseeable second wave of federal aid.

“This is really an oncoming crisis,” said Norden, who interviewed more than 100 election officials for a 2015 report about aging voting equipment published by the Brennan center. “A lot of election officials have been unhappy with the choices that the major vendors are providing.”

[…]

STAR Vote runs automatic audits, comparing a statistical sample of the paper ballots with the digital records to verify results.

“The savings are just enormous over doing a recount,” Stark said.

While other systems allow for comparison of precinct-level data, STAR Vote can compare paper ballots with individual voters’ digital ballots, which are encrypted and posted online.

Officials could take a small sample of printed ballots and compare them with digital results to conclude with high confidence that election results were correct.

The system itself is also inexpensive, built with off-the-shelf tablet computers and printers, which Wallach said will cut the price down to half of the current norm. Advanced software makes up for the cheap hardware, designers said, and they plan to make the software open-source, meaning it is free to use and, unlike current systems, can be serviced by any provider without exclusive long-term contracts.

I’ve written about this before, and while I love the design of the STAR machine, I don’t have much hope of getting to vote on one any time soon. The political climate just doesn’t seem conducive to any effort to improve the voting experience, and the lip service we got from Greg Abbott back during the peak Trump-whining-about-rigged-elections period has surely gone down the memory hole. The one possible way in that I can see for these devices is their lower cost. At some point, enough of the current voting machines will become sufficiently inoperable that replacement will be needed, and a cheaper device ought to have an advantage. Let’s hope the process of getting a manufacturer in place goes smoothly.

(NB: “Wallach” is Rice professor Dan Wallach, who as I have noted before is a friend of mine.)

As long as we’re talking about improving our voting machines

Then this is what we should be talking about.

Dana DeBeauvoir

[Travis] County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir called Rice University computer science professor Dan Wallach, who has been poking holes in voting-machine security for years. He’s testified before Congress on the subject.

Now DeBeauvoir wanted him to design a new one.

“Wow,” he says. “That doesn’t happen very often.”

The last time voting technology went through a major design change was after the disastrous Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election. Confusion over badly designed and incompletely punched paper ballots threw the results into chaos.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, committing $4 billion to help localities buy new electronic voting machines.

“All of these machines, we understand now, are wildly insecure,” Wallach says. “Even though the vendors made claims that they were great, those claims have turned out to be false. And we’re now dealing with that problem.”

But replacing them costs money that many localities don’t have, and it’s not clear that Congress will pony up again.

So Wallach’s new system would have to be cheaper than what’s on the market now.

[…]

The system that the team of cybersecurity and usability experts came up with is called STAR-Vote, for secure, transparent, auditable and reliable.

It has two parts: A kiosk containing an off-the-shelf tablet computer and a standard inkjet printer, plus a metal ballot box with a built-in scanner.

Off-the-shelf parts keep the cost down and can be easily sourced and replaced. Wallach says the metal box costs more than all the electronic components inside it. The whole system should cost half or less what current machines do, which cost about $3,000 each.

Voters make their selections on the touchscreen tablet, which is kept off the internet and stripped of all software (and potential vulnerabilities) except the voting application.

State-of-the-art cryptography protects the integrity of the vote. But it’s not the only safeguard. Hard copy remains one of the most secure ways to cast a ballot.

“The crypto can do some really great tricks,” Wallach says. “But if you don’t trust the cryptography, that’s OK. Because we also have printed paper ballots that go into a box.”

Voters can see who the computer says they chose. The vote is only cast when the voter puts it in the ballot box.

And if there is any question about the electronic votes, the paper ballots are the backup.

This is nothing new – I wrote about it in July of 2014, and Wallach’s team made a presentation about STAR-Vote in August of 2013. The point is that this system, which is both more secure than what we have now while also being less expensive, could be in place for the 2018 election if we really wanted it to be. Given the lip service some Republicans like Greg Abbott are giving to election integrity, this is totally doable. You will know by what happens in the 2017 legislative session whether Abbott et al meant any of it or not.

(Disclaimer: As noted before, Dan Wallach is a friend of mine.)

Wait, who supports paper ballots now?

I have three things to say about this.

Following repeated allegations by Republican Donald Trump that the election may be rigged to ensure a win for Democrat Hillary Clinton, Texas lawmakers are actively considering ways to boost confidence in the state’s elections during next year’s legislative session.

Among the ideas drawing interest: adding paper trail backups to thousands of electronic voting machines.

The idea was brought up in a tweet Saturday by Gov. Greg Abbott.

“That’s a great idea & we are considering it as an election reform measure. Election integrity is essential,” Abbott tweeted in response to a voter who tweeted that he wanted printed proof of how he cast his ballot.

Over the last decade, several Texas lawmakers have filed bills to require paper trails on electronic voting machine. The proposals often include adding a printer in a sealed case to the state’s electronic voting machines so voters could check their votes against the receipt. The paper trail could be consulted in the event of a recount.

During the 2007 legislative session, interest in the idea stalled following estimates that adding the printers to all of the state’s voting machines could cost $40 to 50 million, according to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram article from the time.

One of the 2007 bills was authored by then-state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham. Now a state senator, she said she may re-introduce her previous legislation.

“I agree with Governor Abbott’s call for election reform,” Kolkhorst said Tuesday in an emailed statement. “I have personally spoken with his office about re-introducing my legislation from 2007 to strengthen ballot integrity by requiring a paper record be printed of a person’s vote on an electronic voting machine. Texans have the right to inspect and verify that their vote was accurately recorded.”

[…]

The move toward election reform comes amid an election season in which Texans have expressed concerns about election rigging and voter fraud. Last week, Trump highlighted reports of voting machines in Texas changing votes for president from voters casting straight-ticket ballots. Those reports, however, have been largely debunked by election officials, who have stated that alleged instances of “vote flipping” were the result of user error.

1. I’m old enough to remember when suspicion of electronic voting machines and faith that only paper ballots could ensure the integrity of our electoral system was a shibboleth on the left, largely having to do with dire conspiracy theories about the Diebold corporation and vote counting in Ohio in 2004. Here’s a little blast from the past for those of you who have blocked this out or weren’t there for it the first time. Who knew that a sociopathic sore-losing narcissist could spark such an interest in voting machine integrity among Republicans? For that matter, who knew that so many Republican voters could be that suspicious of the electoral process in a state whose elections they have been dominating for over 20 years? Clearly, all these Republican County Clerks and Republican-appointed elections administrators can’t be trusted.

2. Travis County has already done a lot of the heavy lifting on building a better mousetrap. Maybe we should just emulate their work and save us all a bunch of time and effort.

3. Putting aside the question of paper ballots for a moment, perhaps we should take a moment and contemplate the fact that the electronic voting machines we use now are all a decade or more old, and are generally past their recommended lifespan. If we do nothing else, spending a few bucks to upgrade and replace our current hardware would be an excellent investment.

Stan Stanart talks election security

I have a few thoughts as well.

vote-button

Over the course of the presidential race, concern has grown about digitally safeguarding election results.

New cyber security threats seem to emerge monthly. Republican Donald Trump has repeatedly contended the presidential election will be “rigged.” And suspected Russian hackers have broken into computer systems of the Democratic Party.

“With so much news out there, people are concerned,” acknowledged Harris County’s top election official, Stan Stanart, at a news conference Thursday.

However, Stanart sought to reassure the public that all necessary defenses are up and there is no way Harris County’s election will be hacked or rigged, because it is not connected to the internet.

[…]

“Our elections are too important to leave them open to attack,” said Dan Wallach, a Rice University computer science professor who testified in September to Congress on election cyber security. “We need to do better.”

The most attractive part of an election system for a malicious attack, he said,is the voter database – in Harris County, it’s a list of nearly 2.2 million registered voters. If hackers successfully deleted it, chaos would ensue.

But the county database is kept offline, invulnerable from the outside. Even so, Stanart, the county clerk, said his office, the county tax assessor’s office, and the Texas secretary of state save a backup copy every day.

“There are many eyes and there are many triggers in the whole system that would notify us, and we would observe if there were any issues with any registrations being changed,” Stanart said. “I assure you there’s no problem there.”

Wallach agreed that the daily database backups provided excellent protection.

The fact that the voting machines are not connected to the Internet is a good thing. Dan Wallach (who is a friend of mine) has some criticism of the “secure network” setup for transferring the voting data from the individual memory cards to the central network, but I agree with him that this is an unlikely target for attack. The main vulnerability here is what it has always been, with the cards themselves and their handling. If a card becomes corrupted or lost before its contents can be uploaded, there’s no backup. This is why people like Wallach have been calling for paper receipts to be included. That problem, and the accompanying risk, cannot be solved with the current voting machines. I don’t know how big that risk is – in over a decade of using the eSlate machines, we have not had this problem, but the downside if it happens even once is enormous, and these machines are at the end of their lifecycle with no obvious path forward. But hey, maybe we’ll make it through another election.

As for the voter registration data, it’s really a question of the county’s network security overall. There are a lot of pieces to this, so I’ll just focus on the question of monitoring. As long as they monitor all changes to the voter registration file – what, when, by whom – and they have someone keeping an eye on that, then they’re probably OK.

So I tend to agree that at the very least there’s nothing new or unusual to worry about this year, and I appreciate Stanart making the effort to address that. We should always be vigilant, but let’s not lose perspective, and let’s not worry about things that aren’t worth worrying about. If only Stanart took that same approach to the far smaller risk of in person vote fraud.

Dan Wallach: The case for not letting everybody vote by mail

You know who Dan Wallach is by now. Voting systems and security are in his wheelhouse, and when he sent this to me in response to this, I was happy to queue it up.

vote-button

Vote by mail (VBM) is cheaper! It’s more enfranchising! Take your time and do it right! Yes, indeed, and why not even do it over the Internet! Sigh. But what proponents of VBM seem to miss in these arguments in that voting is not the same as doing your taxes. It’s not the same as buying stuff from Amazon. Why? Because voting fraud happens. Voting fraud has a long history. You name the voting technology, and there are people who try to use it to influence the outcome of elections.

Let’s take a trip in the Wayback Machine to the time before the modern “Australian” secret ballot. Voters would get colorfully printed “party slates”, often from their partisan newspapers, and would take them to the polls to deposit in the ballot box. (Check out the pretty pictures!) Why did we switch to having the state doing the printing and having voters fill those ballots out in a private booth? To eliminate bribery and coercion! This transition was even connected with the women’s suffrage movement, since the women at the time were apparently less interested than the manly men in putting up with a partisan gauntlet between the street and the ballot box. (See this NPR interview with Jill Lepore for lots of fun details.)

Okay, so secret ballots are a good thing, but they only work when the voter cannot prove how they voted, even if they want to. That’s why you’re not supposed to have your smartphone out when you’re voting, because you can make a video of your whole interaction with the machine. That’s why you vote alone, without assistance, because your “assistant” could then monitor your every move. Yes, “assisting” voters is a prominent mode of voter fraud, especially for the elderly. (See this article about the history of voter fraud in Chicago for some details.) That articled also gets into my problem with absentee / VBM balloting:

Joe Novak, a longtime Chicago political operative who knew the intimate details of the election system, explained in 2002 that election fraud still worked the way it had for years. “Precinct captains still like to control the vote by pushing absentees.” The captain goes to a retirement center or other places where the elderly gather and gets a signed statement from a voter that they can’t make it to the polls on Election Day. The captain can tell the voter how to vote. The idea is “Captains like to be ranked No. 1” in their ward organization. Alderman Joseph Moore from the Forty-Ninth Ward added, “The captain will offer to take (a completed absentee ballot) downtown for you.”  “Until they tightened the rules a few years ago,” Moore said, “it was common to see captains bringing in buckets full of ballots.”

A similar instructive example is the election of “Landslide” Lyndon B Johnson for the U.S. Senate in 1948 (background article, academic discussion). Texas, at the time, was largely controlled by the Democratic Party, so the Democratic Primary election was to be decisive for who would win the Senate seat, much like the Republican Primary is today. The 1948 primary went to a runoff between Johnson and former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson, Johnson defeated Stevenson by an “87-vote landslide.” Much attention has focused on ballot stuffing in Jim Wells County’s infamous “Box 13,” but ballot box stuffing, among other fraudulent behavior, was apparently the norm across the state. Counties were allowed to report “revisions” to their tallies in the week following the election, allowing local party bosses to continuously adjust their vote totals to assist their preferred candidate.

Let’s get back to VBM. Yes, it’s absolutely easier to defraud an election where voters are using VBM. In Texas today, if you want to vote absentee, you must either be over 65, or have one of a small set of valid reasons. If we expanded this to the general population, would we have more voter fraud? Without a doubt. Sure, VBM proponents like to talk about the extent to which they verify signatures on envelopes, but they cannot possibly hope to combat elderly vote fraud, never mind undo family influence. VBM fundamentally enables fraud.

Okay, but what about those electronic voting machines? They certainly have their own serious problems. Here’s a 93 page report I co-authored as part of California’s 2007 “Top to Bottom Report” on the Hart InterCivic eSlate. Our conclusion then was that there were unacceptable security flaws in the design of the eSlate and every other voting system we analyzed. So far as I can tell, Hart InterCivic hasn’t meaningfully changed anything since then. We’re still voting on the same poorly engineered machines here in Harris County today. But are these weaknesses being actively exploited? I don’t know, and neither does anybody else.

What would I recommend to replace our aging and breaking voting systems? I was invited by Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir and her team to help design something new, from scratch, that might better meet the needs of Travis County and others. Our design, called STAR-Vote (secure, transparent, auditable, reliable), uses state of the art cryptographic and statistical auditing techniques that can help voters prove their votes were counted correctly or prove they were defrauded (yet not be able to prove to a third party how they voted). STAR has printed paper ballots, so tampered software can’t mess with the final tallies without detection. And STAR is designed to use off-the-shelf commodity computer hardware rather than the overpriced proprietary devices being sold by the voting systems industry. Where does STAR stand today? We’ve got a great design. We have prototype implementations here at Rice, today, where we’re running usability tests. Ultimately, we need to get the funding together to professionally build and maintain the software, and that’s as much a political challenge as anything technical. Once the software’s done, the incremental cost of rolling out new hardware would be something like a third of the cost of what the voting machine industry wants to charge, and we haven’t even begun to talk about the ongoing service contract savings. (The exact business model for STAR is very much dependent on its funding situation. Legally, any company could take our design, implement it, and sell it, yet none have; sadly, some voting system vendors have inappropriately adopted similar technical lingo while shipping products without any of the desirable security properties.)

Yeah, but what about voter turnout? If your goal is to increase voter turnout, then there are plenty of ways to make that happen. 22 countries make voting mandatory. If you want something a little less draconian, might I suggest an “open primary” as California has done? That would better enfranchise “independent” voters who don’t want to be forced to vote in one party or the other’s primary. Or how about compact districts, so we can have more competitive races? Want something less disruptive? Okay, how about Election Day vote centers? In Travis County today, you can go to any polling place in the county, on Election Day, and you get to vote on your particular ballot. Want to vote near your work? No problem. Travis County adopted this to work around a nightmarish redistricting that would have otherwise resulted in large numbers of voters going to the wrong polling places, but you can see how it could add convenience for everybody.

My colleague, Bob Stein, likes to quip that all voters have one thing in common: they know who they want to vote for. If you want to increase turnout, I’m all for it, but if that’s truly the goal, then let’s not weaken our protections against voting fraud.

Dan Wallach: 2016 Electric Power Usage Update

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here. In this particular case, I’m welcoming back someone who has written on this particular topic before.

We’ve now had a solar system on our house, and an electric car charging from the house, for just over a year. Also of note, in my post last May, I suggested that what we need is a retail electric plan that sells to you at a competitive rate (versus the inflated prices at Green Mountain) and buys from you at the wholesale price (which can climb impressively high on hot summer afternoons, when your solar system is cranking out the juice). Well, plans like this are starting to appear on the market. MP2 Energy has such a plan and others are looking into it.

Today, I want to discuss a few related questions:

  • How much electricity did our solar system generate, and our electric car consume, in the past year?
  • Based on our year of data, would we do any better to stick with Green Mountain or go to one of the newer plans?

Of course, I’m only writing about our own usage, with our house and our car. Your house and your car and your, umm, mileage will vary, but you might be able to extrapolate from our numbers to reach your own conclusions about whether you want to go solar.

How much electricity did our solar system generate?

Below is a graph of the energy-per-day produced by our solar array. You can see the system generating more energy in the summer months, with the correspondingly longer days. You can also see the occasional days with bad weather. No sun = no power.

Dan Wallach 2016 chart

In total, over this twelve month period, our solar array (36 panels, 250W peak production per panel) produced 10.3 MWh of electricity. At the $0.12/kWh buyback rate we’re getting with Green Mountain Energy, that means that our solar array saved us roughly $1240 this year. (Our panels are facing east and west, as a result of the way our roof is built. If your house has a large southern-facing roof, you could get this much power from fewer panels.)

How much juice did our Tesla consume?

According to the Tesla’s dashboard measurements, after a year of owning it, we’ve driven a total of 7033 miles, and used 2476 kWh to do it. That’s 352 Wh/mile. Assuming you were paying $0.10/kWh for your electricity, then we’re talking about 3.5 cents/mile. Contrast that with a comparably large sedan with comparable performance (e.g., an Audi A7), doing the same sort of city driving and thus getting something crappy like 15 miles/gallon, then with current $2/gallon prices, you’re looking at 13.3 cents/mile. You’d have to have some kind of amazing 57mpg  hybrid to achieve the same cost per mile. (A Prius is almost there. Big luxury cars, not so much.)

Another way to think about it: the “long tailpipe” problem. Some critics of electric cars note that they still burn fossil fuels, just somewhere far away from home. Our solar array produced enough energy to run our Tesla for nearly 30,000 miles. So if you want to have a “solar powered electric car”, you can do it with even a modest-sized solar system.

What if you drive a longer commute? The prior owner of our Tesla lived up in the Woodlands and commuted back and forth to Houston. He was averaging an even more amazing 300 Wh/mile, driving twice as many miles per year in the same exact car. He upgraded to a Tesla P85D (the four-wheel-drive version that goes insanely faster) and his mileage stayed roughly the same. Supercar performance, tiny hybrid efficiency.

All that said, I don’t have a really good handle on the overhead of the Tesla. Sure, it consumed 2476 kWh in the past year, but that’s going from the car’s battery to the tires. There’s some fractional overhead beyond that, going from the wall outlet to the car’s battery. Charging a battery creates heat, which represents wasted electricity, and also requires additional energy to remove. The Tesla will thus use extra power to run the A/C compressor while it’s charging. For now, let’s just say that measuring the charging overhead is future work. (Hey OffTheKuff readers: if you’ve got measurement infrastructure that I could borrow for this, let me know!)

Lastly, I’ll note that we did several road trips in the Tesla, using their Supercharger infrastructure. I’d estimate that somewhere around 500 kWh of that energy was “free” from the Supercharger network (i.e., included in the cost of buying the car).

Should we stick with Green Mountain or switch elsewhere?

Green Mountain has the best net metering plan on the market, but there are only two competitors. In a nutshell, Green Mountain buys and sells power from you at the exact same price: $0.12/kWh, inclusive of all fees and taxes. But there are plenty of standard retail plans that will sell you electricity at $0.08 or $0.09/kWh. Can we do better than Green Mountain’s net metering plan? The real issue, once you strip away all the dumb politics, is that the underlying pricing model isn’t at all a flat rate for electricity.

Roughly speaking, there’s a wholesale price for the electricity coming from a commercial generator and then there’s a distribution price to get it to you. Wholesale prices vary all day long, with overnight lows below a penny and mid-afternoon highs as much as 3 cents/kWh, with occasional peaks that are much, much higher. CenterPoint charges 3.8 cents/kWh for delivery of that power, no matter what, alongside a flat monthly charge of $5.47 per residential customer. All those charges are often rolled into the pricing plans you see from other retail electricity providers, who are essentially gambling that they can buy power at variable wholesale rates and sell it to you at a flat retail price while still somehow making a profit.

When a retail electricity provider wants to get into the solar buyback game, their actual costs to get power downstream to your house (so far as I can tell) are the wholesale price plus the distribution price. Your excess solar power production is worth the same to them as the spot wholesale price when it flows back upstream. CenterPoint doesn’t give any sort of rebate for upstream electricity flows. CenterPoint’s argument: Somebody else is receiving the power you’re sending upstream, and they’re paying to get it delivered. CenterPoint charges for that delivery.

Can a retail electricity provider offer a competitive pricing plan that’s closer to the wholesale market structure while still buffering consumers from the sometimes insane spikes of the raw wholesale market? One such provider, who prefers not to be named yet in public, approached me privately and offered me the chance to test drive a new plan they’re working on. Their proposal is to pass through all the CenterPoint charges, as is, and then have a flat 3 cents/kWh for buying and selling power, downstream or upstream. I ran these numbers through my spreadsheet for the same 12 months of data I’ve already captured. Here’s what came out: Green Mountain’s $0.12/kWh net metering plan cost us $692.84 for the year. If we had this new plan instead, it would come out to $712.07 for the same usage in the same year.

Evaluating MP2’s spot-price “solar buyback” plan is a bit more complicated, because the upstream price they pay you varies all day long. Conveniently, MP2 did this analysis for me. I emailed them all our data and their conclusion was that our annual bill would be $904.32, so not especially competitive with Green Mountain’s net metering. MP2 also offers a net metering plan, similar to Green Mountain’s plan, but it’s presently offered as part of getting your solar system installed through SolarCity. Thus, not an option for us.

Call me modestly bullish on this. Even though MP2’s solar buyback plan isn’t a good deal for our house, other firms are looking to offer variants on the same business model that are competitive. As an added bonus, I’d now be incentivized to put a big battery on our house to capture the excess daily production and reuse it at night. With standard net-metering, there was no incentive, but now I’d save those distribution charges. I’ll still wait for the cost of battery packs to drop, but it’s fun to think about.

Some Thoughts About the Future

There are always going to be a few days in the summer where the demand on the grid peaks out. In those cases, all the market-rate adjustments in the world won’t cause a new industrial generator to be constructed and placed online. That means high prices and brownouts. (If anything, there’s a reasonable fear that generators might deliberately go off-line to force price spikes. That’s beyond the scope of today’s post.)

Solar has a big role to play in stabilizing our grid, because those hottest hours of the day are exactly when solar panels will be generating the most power. Solar also happens to do the job without pollution, and without incurring large infrastructure costs for long-distance power distribution. On top of that, solar’s one-time purchase and installation costs are rapidly shrinking.

Consequently, it’s sensible and desirable for the Federal government to continue its solar subsidy, and it would make a lot of sense for the Texas state government to get in on the game as well. The solar on our roof helps our neighbors, not just us. I’m not suggesting that we’ll stop burning fossil fuels, but rather that a diversified set of sources is a desirable way to meet the needs for a stable and scalable power grid.

The biggest objection to solar, so far as I can tell, comes from shills who misrepresent the financial structure of the electricity markets and claim that residential solar production leads to “mooching” off the grid. What I like about MP2 and some of the other buyback plans coming online is that they address this concern head-on. By passing through the monthly CenterPoint connection charge and pricing power consumption somewhere only marginally higher than wholesale rates, these new plans make it clear that solar systems aren’t mooching at all. They’re paying their fair share, and they’re improving the reliability of the grid while they’re at it.

Dan Wallach: 2015 Electric Power Usage Update

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here. In this particular case, I’m welcoming back someone who has written on this particular topic before.

I’ve been blogging about our electricity situation for the past few years here at OffTheKuff. In 2014, I mentioned that we were pondering going with a solar system. Well, we did it — a 9 kW (peak) solar system via Texas Solar Outfitters — and we also picked up a Tesla Model S. This is less about being green hippie freaks and more about disconnecting from what I’ve viewed as a deeply dysfunctional electricity market. (And also having a car that kicks ass, but that’s for another day and a different blog.)

We’ve only had the solar system since November, so it’s too soon to have full-year statistics. Once the system reaches its first full year anniversary, I’ll run the “profitability” numbers and do another guest post here. Stay tuned for more exciting charts and financial math (present value, IRR, and more)! Instead, I wanted to give some perspective on the economics of solar power.

Notably, Tesla just announced a new “PowerWall” contraption that puts a 10kWh battery pack on your garage wall for $3500 (plus hiring an electrician, plus permitting, plus ancillary equipment like inverters, so let’s call it $6000 minimum). Elon Musk envisions that we can truly replace our entirely fossil fuel-based economy with solar power: homes, cars, everything. (For more technical details on the PowerWall products, Teslarati has a good writeup.) Let’s do the numbers, shall we?

To begin, here’s our March electrical bill from Green Mountain — the best of the three available plans if you have solar.

WallachElectricBill

This is what “net metering” looks like. We drew 862kWh from the grid and fed back 573kWh. Meanwhile, over the same time period, our solar system reports that it produced 853kWh. Of this, the house consumed 280kWh and we sold back the remaining 573kWh. So, our actual power consumption for March was 1142kWh (solar generation plus grid consumption, minus excesses solar generation sold back).

I rolled back to last year’s stats, when we had neither solar nor a Tesla, and the monthly usage for the same time period was 864kWh, which says that the Tesla used around 280kWh for the month, or maybe it’s just hotter this year. Last year’s awful summer peaks were well north of 1500kWh, so presumably this summer, with the Tesla, we’re looking at 1800-2000kWh / month of peak usage.

(With our Tesla, we’re on target to hit about 7500 miles/year, so these numbers may represent a “low” usage point relative to others, but you can easily scale our numbers up if you want to predict your own hypothetical costs. Your mileage and the weather may vary, etc.)

Here’s where solar gets fun. The graph below shows the energy generated by our solar system on a beautiful, sunny April day. Positive numbers represent power we’re drawing from the grid. Negative numbers represent excess power we’re selling back to the grid. You can see our Tesla charging itself up after we got home from eating dinner out. You can also nicely see when the sun came up and when it went down again. On this particular day, midnight to midnight, we drew 20kWh from the grid while the sun was down. The solar system generated 52kWh, and we had an excess of 44kWh that we sold back to the grid (i.e., we consumed a total of 28kWh on this particular day and were a net seller of electricity). Sounds great right?

WallachSunnyDayApril

The new Tesla PowerWall contraption leads you to ask the question of whether you could store all that extra energy in a battery during the day and release it at night. If you could do that, you could then cut yourself free from the grid. Today’s question: what would it take to go completely “off grid”?

To pull this off, you need to generate everything you might ever need, even in the worst case. So how bad is bad? Here’s a chart of our power usage over a two day period in early April when it was rainy and awful.

WallachRainyApril

Over these two days, our total power drawn from the grid was 46kWh. The solar system generated 25.2kWh, of which 9kWh was sold back to the grid (i.e., we consumed an average of 31kWh/day on these two days). To make this work “off grid”, we’d need to double the size of our solar system. To make this work on a bad weather winter day, with correspondingly less daylight, the solar system would need to grow yet again. Also, this included a typical day of driving with our Tesla. What if we did a long drive and got home with a near-empty battery? You’d have a whole new form of range anxiety to deal with. Conversely, on days when you generate more than you use you’re just throwing it away.

Our current solar system cost us roughly $30k to purchase and install (before the 30% tax credit, which might go down in future years). No matter how you slice it, the profitability of the system is dubious, given how much cheaper electricity became after the Saudis decided to crank up their production. Doubling the solar system, installing expensive batteries, going off-grid, and discarding excess production? Sorry, that’s not financially rational.

Incidentally, if you want to know how to size up a Tesla PowerWall system for an off-grid solar application, you pretty much just add up your grid consumption during the night; you need to ensure you have enough solar capacity and battery capacity during the day to cover it. For our house, two PowerWall batteries ($3500/ea, for 20kWh total storage capacity) wouldn’t quite do the job. We’d need three of them to have a decent margin. If you had a bigger house or you drove many more miles on your electric car, then you’d have to ratchet everything up appropriately.

Conclusion 1: building a solar system to deal with worst-case power generation, operating your house “off grid”, will require your solar system to be much larger than you’d specify for a net-metering application, where you can rely on the grid for bad-weather days. As solar panels get more powerful and cheaper, the economics of this will change. Today, no. Ten years, maybe.

Next question for today: is there any point in buying a PowerWall if not to go off-grid? If what you want is “emergency” service in a power-outage situation, you can buy all sorts of natural gas generators. They’re loud when running and they require regular service, but after Hurricane Ike knocked our power out for ten days, we could feel the soulful allure. Unfortunately, a smaller PowerWall system wouldn’t help here, since for a ten day blackout, you’re really in a situation equivalent to the fully off-grid scenario.

Sadly, with only flat-rate grid electricity pricing available here, I conclude that a PowerWall has no real use at our home.

Caveat 1: so long as TXU is willing to give you “free nights”, then a PowerWall means free electricity for your home! You can expect TXU to kill that program off quickly once Tesla’s battery packs start shipping. Sorry about that.

Caveat 2: electric utilities are cranking up the scare machine that it’s “unfair” for solar consumers to pay less for the grid. First off, this is totally bogus, as we pay the same fixed fee as everybody else pays for CenterPoint to maintain the grid. (Many retail electric plans hide this fee, so long as you use more than 1000kWh, but they’re still paying it on your behalf. ) And if you’re a net provider rather than net consumer of power at peak times, you’re helping the grid. But let’s say the utilities win the argument and kill off or weaken solar net metering. At that point, we’re forced to buy a battery storage system to recapture our excess daytime usage. The grid then loses the benefit of our excess generation, and every new solar system just got more expensive for no good reason.

All of this would change if consumers were more exposed to the variable pricing of the commercial power market. Rice University, for example, buys its electricity a full year ahead of time, hour by hour, offset by in-house solar production. If it turns out that Rice pre-bought more than they need, they sell it back on the spot market. If they need more than they pre-bought, they have to go buy power on that same spot market. And, of course, when do they really need it? The same time as everybody else does, on the hottest days, so spot prices can be brutal. With this in mind, typical commercial flat rooftop solar installations point their panels southwest, maximizing their power generation in the afternoon when electricity is most expensive.

The real genius of power storage systems is that you can buy and store the power when it’s cheap and uses it when it’s expensive. Energy arbitrage! That means that the mammoth version of Tesla’s PowerWall might be very attractive for industrial and commercial users. Even utilities might deploy them into neighborhoods. And if home users were more exposed to the “real” pricing in the commercial market, they too would be incentivized to get personal battery storage systems, with or without solar, for the same reasons. So far as I can tell, none of the available-in-Houston 325 plans from the 52 different retail electric providers offer hour-by-hour variable pricing like this, but in Austin or San Antonio, your traditional electric utility might be able to do it. Here’s a nice NPR article with useful details.

Conclusion 2: so long as consumers have net metering available and are not exposed to variable time-of-day electricity pricing, they won’t be incentivized to buy a battery storage system, with or without a solar system on the roof. There’s really no benefit for Houston consumers today to buy a storage system.

Teslarati runs a similar analysis in a state with variable pricing. In Southern California, the PowerWall becomes profitable in 3-5 years, and is unattractive for off-grid. Also, Vermont’s Green Mountain Power, not to be confused with our NRG-owned Green Mountain Energy, is ramping up some kind of joint program with Tesla. Who knows, maybe we’ll see something like it here some day.

One parting thought: in the insane, fragmented universe of the deregulated Texas electricity market, where generation, distribution, and retail sales are performed by unrelated players, we’ll probably be stuck with pricing policies that incentivize consumers to waste energy for make benefit most glorious State of Texas. Of course, exposing consumers to the raw industrial electricity market would likely be disastrous. Consumers can’t easily manage their load or trade contracts against future use. The best we seem to get are “smart” thermostats that can throttle back at peak times. Yawn. What seems missing, then, is better regulations for how consumer pricing is structured to incentivize lower peak usage. My proposed solution? Net metering and predictable time-variable pricing should be a standard part of any retail electricity offering. Let me sell high and buy low! Similarly, every plan should be structured to eliminate perverse rate structures where marginal rates go down as usage goes up. That’s common sense. Deregulation!

Dan Wallach is a professor of computer science at Rice and a friend of mine who has written four of these analyses before.

Use less, pay more

Ain’t utility deregulation grand?

More than 70 percent of electric plans offered in the Houston area contain terms that may penalize customers who don’t use a certain amount of power, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of more than 300 plans available in early January.

NRG and other companies with plans that include the fees say they offer a variety of products designed to meet the needs of different kinds of customers. They also point out that fixed fees covering some of their overhead allow them to reduce the rates they charge per kilowatt hour of consumption.

Some plans charge minimum-use fees to customers whose monthly power consumption falls below a particular threshold – usually 1,000 kilowatt hours. Other plans offer credits to customers who exceed a specified threshold of power use.

“The market probably still has a way to go toward rewarding people for using less,” said Troy Donovan, market development manager at CenterPoint Energy Services, which runs a website called TrueCost that factors the fees into its analysis of electric plans. It is a division of CenterPoint Energy, the transmission company that distributes electricity in the Houston area regardless of what retailer sells customers their power.

Consumer advocates say minimum-use penalties discourage energy conservation at a time when environmental groups, all levels of government and even electric companies themselves are encouraging customers to scale back on energy consumption.

“These fees often go unnoticed until you really cut back and you realize you still have a larger bill than you expected,” said Jake Dyer, a policy analyst at the nonprofit Texas Coalition for Affordable Power. “It’s bad news for a lot of folks doing their best to save power and save on their electric bill.”

Even customers penalized for using less energy pay for energy efficiency initiatives: A $3.05 fee on monthly bills in the Houston area covers installation of technically advanced smart meters partly touted as energy-saving measures; the city of Houston last year raised residential energy-efficiency requirements.

[…]

About a third of the Houston-area retail providers the Chronicle examined listed no plans containing penalties or credits based on power use.

TriEagle Energy, based in The Woodlands, charges customers flat monthly fees – in addition to their electricity rate per kilowatt hour – but the fees aren’t tied to power consumption. Consumers are more likely to stay with the company if they don’t get surprises like minimum-use fees on their bills, said Kasey Cline, TriEagle’s director of sales and marketing.

Other retailers, how­ever, say the fees make sense.

Champion Energy Services uses them to cover fixed costs that it otherwise would roll into energy rates, said Brenda Crockett, vice president for market development and regulatory affairs. The company has to pay costs of billing and other services for all customers, she added, regardless of their electricity use.

Other companies echoed that response.

“There’s a cost to cover, whether they’re using 1 kilowatt hour or 1 million kilowatt hours,” said Robbie Wright, a founder of Bounce Energy, which also charges minimum use fees.

That argument rings hollow with Dyer, of the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power. “You don’t pay a minimum-use fee when you step into a grocery store,” Dyer said. “You don’t pay a minimum-use fee when you shop for any other product. Most businesses price their product in such a way that the people who actually buy it will pay for their fixed-cost infrastructure.”

Dan Wallach noted this feature back in 2013, in his annual report of choosing an electric plan for his house that year. There’s no logical reason for this – the companies do it because they can, because most people don’t read the fine print closely enough. Jake Dyer is exactly right, but in the absence of some kind of market regulation, or better educated consumers, they’ll get away with it. It’s easy to say that other companies could undercut the ones that do this on price and steal their business, but that isn’t what has happened. Maybe this Chron story will help, but I doubt any one story could. It will take a lot more outreach than that to penetrate the public consciousness.

Travis County pursues new voting machines

Very, very interesting.

Dana DeBeauvoir

With the nation facing what a January government report described as an “impending crisis” in voting technology, officials in Travis County are taking matters into their own hands by seeking to create a unique, next-generation system of voting machines.

The efforts put Travis County, along with Los Angeles County in California, at the cutting edge of a race against time to create an alternative voting technology system.

The new machines would have voters use off-the-shelf electronic equipment like tablets, but also provide them with receipts and printed ballots to allow for easier auditing. The development and implementation process won’t be finished in time for the 2016 elections, though officials hope to have the system ready by the 2018 gubernatorial race.

[…]

Some election administrators have said the status quo will likely fall apart within a few years. Across the country, “it’s all just a guessing game at this point: How long can we last?” said Dana DeBeauvoir, the Travis County clerk.

Three years ago, DeBeauvoir decided that something had to change. “I said, ‘Okay, I’m fed up. I’m going to design my own system.’” Part of her frustration stemmed from complaints lodged against the county that she felt blamed officials for things beyond their control. Travis County voters filed a lawsuit in 2006 alleging that electronic voting machines lacked reliability and security. The case was dismissed by the Texas Supreme Court in 2011.

After deciding to create a new system, DeBeauvoir gathered a citizens’ study group, and then a panoply of experts, to iron out the details.

The group is now close to finishing the design of a prototype known as the STAR (Security, Transparency, Auditability and Reliability) Voting System. The county intends to issue a request for proposals within a couple of months and hopes to select a winning bid by the end of the year, DeBeauvoir said.

[…]

The designs already posted on the Travis County clerk’s website lay out a multi-step process: A voter checks in, signs a roster and receives a ticket. Then, she gives the ticket to a poll worker to get a unique ballot code from a ballot control station, which sends information to a voting device. At the device, she makes her choices, prints out a completed ballot and deposits it in a ballot box with a scanner. She also receives a receipt that allows her to check online the next day to ensure the ballot was counted.

All the devices communicate with each other to update and confirm data. To ensure security, the system employs cryptography that “has never been done before” in voting technology, DeBeauvoir said.

The printed paper ballot is particularly crucial, as it addresses one of the principal criticisms of the existing electronic systems. The touchscreen machines common in many counties lack “a paper trail that actually captures the intent of the voter so that you can audit the machines,” said Alex Russell, a University of Connecticut professor of computer science and mathematics and faculty member at the school’s Center for Voting Technology Research. During recounts, auditors can only double-check what the machines say, without any way to verify that the machines reflect voters’ choices.

The presentation is here. It’s pretty technical in places, but the main gist of it is easy to understand and well-summarized by the Trib story. There’s an accompanying video of the presentation on this page, with the presenter being Rice University computer science prof Dan Wallach, who has been studying this stuff for years. Other materials are here on the Travis County Clerk website.

As noted, the STAR-Vote collaboration is close to issuing an RFP for this. One key requirement for the hardware will be sufficient battery life – Election Day and some early voting days last for 12 hours, so your voting machines will need to do so as well. The collaboration will be approaching other counties to participate, which will allow for cost-sharing while making the RFP more attractive to vendors since there would be more potential customers for their proposed devices. I need to check and see if Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart has any interest in this. Our eSlate machines are as old and outdated as Travis County’s are, after all. One other potential hurdle is that this idea is very new and contains aspects that are not addressed by existing federal laws, so either the laws will need to be updated (as if Congress is capable of doing that) or waivers will need to be obtained. The latter ought to be doable, but as with anything new and unprecedented you never know what potholes may exist in the pathway. Be that as it may, this is a thorough and thoughtful design that addresses all kinds of concerns and would put electronic voting machines on a much more sustainable path. I look forward to seeing how the RFP process goes. What do you think about this?

Dan Wallach: Home power analysis, 2014 edition

Note: From time to time, I solicit guest posts from various individuals on different topics. While I like to think I know a little something about a lot of things, I’m fortunate to be acquainted with a number of people who know a whole lot about certain topics, and who are willing to share some of that knowledge here. In this particular case, I’m welcoming back someone who has written on this particular topic before.

It’s July and that can only mean one thing: time to worry about my electrical contract for the next year. As we saw in last year’s installment, I ended up going with TriEagle Energy’s 100% renewable product. They want to jack my rates by 10% over last year, so clearly it’s time to run the numbers again.

This year, I decided to try to sort out what each plan would cost based on my power usage data for the past year (thanks again to SmartMeterTexas.com). For five months, my usage went over 1000 kWh/month and for seven it was well below. I then downloaded the full spreadsheet of available offers from PowerToChoose.org, built an equation to estimate my monthly charges, and then all I have to is sort to find the cheapest, right? Sadly, it’s not that easy. The spreadsheet data they give you is a disaster. Rather than just listing the fees, there’s now a textual column titled “Fees/Credits” and there’s no standard way in which they’re reported. Some companies report what you’d pay per kWh, inclusive of monthly fees, while others report what you pay exclusive of those fees. This meant I had to go through every row in the table and try to interpret their mumbo jumbo. Deregulation!

If you just try to just naively scale the 500 or 1000 kWh numbers, you end up with a wrong answer by 2% or more, but the EFLs often fail to give you enough data to do any better. So, with that caveat, here’s a histogram of how much money I’d spend in a year with each of the nearly 200 fixed rate electricity contracts on offer. Higher points in this histogram mean there are more plans that would end up costing me that price.

WallachPowerAnalysisChart2014

While I don’t want to name names for companies with unhelpful Electric Facts Labels and PowerToChoose-published data, I do want to give kudos specifically to Our Energy for doing it better. They say explicitly what CenterPoint expenses they are passing through, and they themselves have a flat rate on the power they’re selling. This allows me to calculate my real expenses, not a cheesy approximation of them. That would adjust them from $1316/year (as everything else in the histogram above is computed) to $1277/year, moving them into the top competitive position on my chart. Would others be cheaper as well? Probably, but PowerToChoose doesn’t give me enough information to choose. Should I reward Our Energy with my business for having the best and most transparent EFL? It’s tempting, but first, a rant…

Can’t we please go back to having a centrally regulated traditional utility company?

San Antonio still has this. I had a friend there send me a copy of her utility bill. She’s paying approximately $0.11 / kWh. Her bill breaks out the fixed and variable charges, much like I appreciate from Our Energy. On my histogram above, she’d be somewhere in the far left — getting an exceptionally good rate and not having to do this stupid analysis every year. All of our lovely free market competition in Houston is really just a series of opportunities for fools and their money to be quickly separated from one another.

Hey, what about solar power and saving the earth and stuff?

When I first started writing this year’s analysis, I said to myself, “Surely solar power must be a real option by now!” After way too much investigation, the short answer is, “maybe, if you can afford the big payment up front.” After spending the last month getting quotes and doing the research, I’m this close to pulling the trigger on a solar installation. Here are the high points:

Solar works hand-in-hand with the grid. When you install a solar system, it’s generating power during the day that you probably don’t need, and you need power at night that your solar system isn’t providing. This means your meter gets to run backwards during the day and forwards at night. If you have a month where you generated more than you used, you get a negative electric bill, which is then “banked” for future months. (Curious side-effect: you don’t want to over-size your solar system, because you’ll never get all your money back from the “bank”.) Also notable: if grid power goes down, so does your solar system. You can install a backup battery system or a gas-powered generator, but that’s a whole separate animal.

The financial incentives are okay, not great. In rough terms, the system I’m contemplating, which might generate 9-10 kW from the mid-day sun, will cost $20k after federal tax incentives. After that, you have small or even negative electric bills, and you start making money back on your initial investment. You stir in a bunch of assumptions about the depreciating value of the asset you’ve bolted to the roof, and you come out with a bottom line that you can look at with standard financial investment terms (internal rate of return, etc.). The proposal I’m considering from Texas Solar Outfitters would have an IRR of 7.4%, under their standard set of assumptions. Under different assumptions, you’re better off just getting power from the grid. (The same numbers in a place like California are in the “no brainer” category, both from additional up-front incentives and from the tiered electrical pricing they have. Solar helps keep you out of the higher tiers.)

What about leasing vs. buying, warranties, etc. In short, a lease is a lot like a loan. You’re paying less up front and you’re making monthly payments. The leasing company is trying to make money. The net effect is that the IRR goes down to the point that the deals are less likely to be worthwhile. (Again, this varies on a state by state basis. Nobody’s subsidizing those leases here.) Solar lease deals also act like an extended warranty on your gear. If your panels aren’t up to spec, they repair them for you. Most solar parts have very long warranties of their own, so this is less of a big deal than you’d think.

The environmental impact of solar is less abstract than the premium you pay for a “green” grid electricity plan. No matter what grid plan you purchase, green or not, the same mix of mostly coal and gas-fired generators are still producing the power your house is consuming. The only difference is that you’re paying your utility middleman to also buy you “renewable energy credits”, which are sold by wind farms and other such things and which may or may not be feeding their electrons to your house. It’s at best unclear whether you’re incentivizing somebody to install more “green” generation capacity versus building another traditional plant. On the flip side, when you’re turning sunlight into power, you’re directly removing your demand from the grid. This sort of logic is especially attractive if you’ve got an electric car and you’re worried about the “long tailpipe” emissions problem.

Aren’t you just a leach on the electric grid, then? Umm, no. By installing solar, you’re doing the grid a favor by supplementing its power during the peak draws in the hot summer sun. If more houses could run their meters backwards, that would effectively supplement the big generators and help avoid brownouts. Also, you’re paying the same monthly fee that everybody else pays for connecting to the grid.

So, what’s your new electricity plan then?

I need to pick a new electricity provider now, even though it might be a while before I can get a solar panel system installed on my house. The set of plans that support solar sellback is very small. So far as I can tell, I’ve got precisely three choices: Green Mountain, Reliant Energy, and TXU. The winner among these seems to be Green Mountain, who will buy your first excess 500 kWh/month from you at full retail price and half price thereafter. TXU buys from you at 7.5 cents/kWh no matter what. I can’t seem to find the Reliant number.

Green Mountain says you can sign up for any of their plans and switch without penalty to the plan that supports buying your power back from you, so that’s probably the way for me to go.

Dan Wallach is a professor of computer science at Rice and a friend of mine who has provided this annual analysis three times before.

Dan Wallach: Energy Pricing 2013

Note: The following is a guest post by my friend Dan Wallach

For the past two years, I’ve written a guest blog post here about electrical rates. Let’s do it again, shall we?

Last year, I switched from a variable rate to a fixed rate electrical plan, to avoid the occasional shocking price hikes that came with variable plans. This year, with my one-year lock-in ending, I decided it was time to look again, so once again, it was back to PowerToChoose.com. To help you sort through the offers, it helps to understand how much electricity you use every month. For those of you with a smart meter on the side of your house, you can get yourself an account at SmartMeterTexas.com. You type in some stuff from your power bill and you’re good to go. Here’s what it said for my monthly power usage over the past year:

WallachGraph1

What you see shouldn’t be too surprising: when it’s hot in the summer, our electric bills go way up to run the A/C. In the rest of the year, we’re using less. (You’ll see the July 2012 bar got cut into two half-bars. This is probably a side effect of when I switched my electrical service from one company to another last year.)

You’ll notice that, for most of the year, we’re running comfortably under 1000 kWh/month. Well, most of the electricity plans available to us have a $10/month surcharge if you go below 1000 kWh. (You have to read those electric fact labels carefully.) What’s the right way to go shopping then? Turns out, there’s a link at PowerToChoose that will let you download all the terms of every electric plan in one giant CSV file that you can load into Excel. I took that data, stripped out everything except the plans offered in Houston through CenterPoint Energy, and then sorted by the 500 kWh/month predicted cost. Estimated prices range from $48/month to $89.70/month.

Cutting to the chase, who’s got the best deal? If you want a fixed rate 12 month term, the winner turns out to be TXU’s “Energy Saver’s Edge 12”. Summer Energy is slightly cheaper with a 6 month term, but then you have to do it all again in 6 month. If you want a “100% green” power source, the winner is TriEagle Energy’s “Green Eagle 12”. At least, that’s who would have the best deal for me, given my electric usage. Just for fun, here’s a frequency distribution chart of these prices, focused on what you’d pay for 500 kWh/month, which is the more relevant number for me.

WallachGraph2

The y-axis tells you how many plans would cost you each given price (within a bucket size of $1.50). I’ve plotted frequency charts for only the fixed-price plans, and I’ve separated out the renewable ones (typically “100% renewable”) from the others. I’m not entirely sure what to make of this except to say that there are a whole lot of uncompetitively priced plans out there, and the gap between “100% renewable” and other plans has largely disappeared from the market, unless you’re looking for strictly the lowest priced plans out there.

At least in my case, the TXU cheapo plan looks like the way to go. Even then, if you read their fine print, I’d get assessed a fee if I ever went below 500 kWh/month, but since that hasn’t happened at all in the past year, I’m not going to worry about. I always find it perverse when I have a disincentive to make my house more power efficient. Say I replaced a bunch of our power-hungry halogen bulbs with LED bulbs. I might drop below 500 kWh/month in the winter and end up spending more money. That’s fantastic.

But wait! I downloaded all of this data on May 30 and that’s when I told TXU to switch me. Somehow, their computer switched me from the “TXU Energy Saver’s Edge 12” plan to the “TXU Energy e-Saver 12”. Sounds similar, right? In fact, the 500 kWh/month estimated cost for the new plan is $74/month versus the $54/month that I was expecting. Talk about bait and switch! My guess is that TXU rolled out new plans on June 1 and silently moved me from the original, competitively priced plan to the new, embarrassingly uncompetitive plan. It’s a good thing I had all the original data saved when I called, and then had to talk to a supervisor, and so forth. After 41 minutes of “we’re terribly sorry for the inconvenience” and peppy hold music, all I know is that they’re “investigating” and will get back to me in a few days.

Incidentally, Summer Energy, my current electrical provider, is June 3rd’s winner, with an estimated $50/month for 500 kWh/month of usage with a one year lock-in, so long as you use the proper promo code. TriEagle’s “Green Eagle 12” continues to be the cheapest “100% renewable” plan at $56/month. Part of me wants to just dump TXU ($54/month, if everything goes my way) and instead go with one of these others. The other part of me is just curious to see what TXU will do next. Behold the power of electricity deregulation!

(Note to readers: I’ll post an update here in a comment when I finally resolve this mess.)

Response from County Clerk to Wallach testimony about recounts

The following was sent to me in email by Hector DeLeon, the Director of Communications and Voter Outreach for Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart:

I read Dan Wallach’s report of the recount in your blog titled Diaz Still Leads After Recount. In his report he states:

There was no attempt to audit the original electronic systems, perhaps looking for unusual behavior in the original tallying systems’ logs, or perhaps comparing the in-person poll books or absentee envelopes against the number of cast votes.

What Wallach does not mention is that a reconcilation process is conducted between Election Day and the day the results are canvassed to ensure that the number of access codes printed from the JBCs at each poll match the number of signatures on a pollbook.

He also states: “So far as I could tell, the boxes that hold the JBCs have no security seals, which could have at least provided some evidence of chain-of-custody maintenance.”

Here he also fails to explain that there is a chain of custody in place from the moment that the equipment leaves the County Clerk’s possession. Additionally, he fails to say that security seals are placed on the JBC boxes when they are picked up by the presiding election judges. For Election Day equipment set up purposes, the security seals on the JBC boxes are broken in the presence of the Republican and Democratic presiding and alternate election judges at the poll. There is a form which has to be completed and signed by the presiding and alernate election judges attesting that this occurred.
 
On Election Day, after all votes are cast, in the process of closing the poll, a security seal is placed on JBC boxes before leaving the poll. Again, there is a form that needs to be completed and signed by both the presiding and atlternate election judges attesting that this ocurred.

Additionally, the slot where the mobile ballot box (MBB) is located on the JBC has a security seal. the JBCs’ MBB security seals are only broken to extract the MBB after the presiding election judges return the JBCs at the end of Election Day. At the time of delivery, each JBC is inspected to make sure the security seals are in place. Once the equipment is returned the MBB must be removed from the JBC to enable the reading of the votes. All these procedures are documented on forms which most be completed by the PJ and AJ in the conduct of adminsitering the election at each poll.

All security seals have an ID number. Those numbers are reviewed to ensure the number match on all approriate chain of custody forms.

In short, there are procedures in place to ensure the integrity of the equipment and the veracity of the number of ballots cast at each poll.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve found this to be quite educational. My thanks to Hector DeLeon for the feedback.

Diaz still leads after recount

No surprise.

Former Jacinto City Mayor Chris Diaz still appears to be the Democratic nominee for Harris County Precinct 2 constable following a Monday recount in his razor-thin runoff with Precinct 2 Sgt. Zerick Guinn.

Diaz’s 17-vote margin is unofficial, county Democratic Party Chairman Lane Lewis said, adding the party plans to finalize the results Saturday.

Diaz actually gained a vote after the recount. Unless Guinn wants to pursue this in the courts, the matter is basically settled. Stace has more.

That’s the basic news about this. Do you know how the county handles a recount like this? I had no idea, until Dan Wallach, who wrote that guest post on Tuesday, sent me the following eyewitness account:

Dan Wallach

I was invited by the Harris County Democratic Party to be an observer of the Guinn-Diaz recount, which ran all day on Monday. This race, in the Democratic primary election, was to select the Democratic candidate for Constable, Precinct 2. There were some procedural errors during the initial tally. At one point, the two candidates were separated by all of 3 votes out of just over 11 thousand cast. By the time they included the absentee ballots, roughly 28% of all the votes in the race, the margin of victory was 16 votes.

I showed up at the recount with my camera, hoping to take lots of great pictures. Several people promptly came running at me saying that it was illegal to take pictures during a recount. (Dear lawyers who are reading this: really?) Instead, I’ll just have to do my best to describe what I did and what I saw.

For starters, Harris County uses the Hart InterCivic eSlate, a paperless electronic voting system, which stands out from other DRE-type systems by having a local network in the polling place. For each group of eSlate terminals, there’s a single controller (a “Judge Booth Controller” or JBC) that connects to the eSlates. Three copies of each vote are recorded: one in the eSlate where it was cast, one in the JBC’s internal memory, and one on a PCMCIA flash card (a “mobile ballot box” or MBB) that’s removable from the JBC. If you want to learn a lot more about the eSlate architecture and its security vulnerabilities, you might enjoy the California “Top to Bottom” report, which I co-authored in 2007.

On election night, the process is that they remove the MBBs from the JBCs and use computers to read them and tabulate the data centrally. Part of this process is for the centrally-tabulated data to then be reported on the Election Day Results webpage, or in this case, misreported. It wasn’t the tabulated results that were wrong, just the reported results. That’s another story, although it would be nice to have a detailed explanation of what went wrong.

If the initial counts were done from the MBBs, how about the recount? For this, they used the JBCs: 115 of them were sequestered for the recount, each connected individually to a single computer that copied their contents. (This computer runs Windows 2000, the only “certified” configuration available; at least there was no network connection.) All of this occurred before the recount itself began. No party or candidate representatives witnessed this part of the process. Johnnie German, the county’s administrator of elections, told me that the process took five hours and needed to be done in advance so the recount could complete on time. More on this below.

The recount was an involved process. There were three and later four tables of counters. Each table had five people. Each table gets a stack of every paper ballot for a given precinct which they then tabulate. In the case of absentee ballots, these were original, hand-marked papers. In the case of eSlate-cast ballots, these were printed on site by a laser printer from the aforementioned computer that collected JBC data. The tabulation process has one person, in the center, who picks up a ballot from the stack and reads out who got the vote. On this person’s side are two people (representing the candidates) who double check this. Across the table are two separate people who keep count. With this many eyeballs on the task, the inevitable errors are caught. When a stack of ballots was completed, everybody at the table would agree on a summary sheet, they signed it, and it came over to where I was sitting.

Our table had four people: myself, the election administrator, and one observer for each candidate. I picked up each stack of ballots and called out the precinct number and totals. The election administrator typed those numbers into an Excel spreadsheet. The observers made sure we got the numbers right.

The results? Unsurprisingly, for all the eSlate-cast votes, the hand tabulation exactly equaled the original machine tabulation. For the absentee ballots, we had one precinct with single absentee ballot that somehow didn’t show up for the recount. The election administrator made a phone call to the downtown site, where absentee ballots are kept in a vault, and arranged for somebody to go dig out that ballot and bring it back to us. (That particular ballot was an undervote, so it didn’t impact the result.) We also discovered a precinct that had an extra absentee ballot that somehow wasn’t tabulated at all in the initial machine-scanned tally. Where did it come from? Why wasn’t it counted beforehand? We don’t know. (This ballot favored Diaz, increasing his lead from 16 to 17 votes.) Otherwise, there were no discrepancies or changes to the election outcome. The process started at 8am and ended at 4pm with a one-hour lunch break.

What’s interesting is what we didn’t do in the recount. There was no attempt to audit the original electronic systems, perhaps looking for unusual behavior in the original tallying systems’ logs, or perhaps comparing the in-person poll books or absentee envelopes against the number of cast votes. We didn’t have access to the scanned ballot images, so there was no opportunity to do any sort of risk limiting audit (comparing the scanned ballot images to the physical ones to make sure they’re the same). Also, the only way to get electronic data out of a Hart InterCivic tallying system is in PDF format (example results). There is no way to get all the raw data in a format that’s convenient to bring back into a computer for subsequent analysis.

As I mentioned above, the JBCs’ data was downloaded in advance, giving us no opportunity to observe this process. So far as I could tell, the boxes that hold the JBCs have no security seals, which could have at least provided some evidence of chain-of-custody maintenance. Absentee ballots, for contrast, are transported in plastic tubs with numbered plastic security seals, and there’s a process for documenting those numbers when the seals are broken. A corresponding process for JBCs would be a good idea to adopt.

I’m also a bit sad that we didn’t have a counting scale that we could use in the recount. In addition to enabling clever audits, we could have used them to simply double check the number of papers in each stack of ballots. Apparently the election warehouse does have one, but we weren’t allowed to use it, even to double check our manual tallies. (Dearest election lawyers: really?)

One lesson from this is that political candidates understand the concept of a recount, and there’s plenty of election code that talks about what a recount entails. What’s less clear is how well the election code can bend to support the idea of audits. Printing sheets of paper corresponding to electronically cast ballot records, then counting them by hand, is both wasteful of resources and unlikely to discover anything valuable. Instead, I’d like to see counties offer a menu of options (at different prices, of course) to the candidate requesting a recount. A candidate might then choose to pay for a full tally of absentee ballots and for various audits to reconcile the totals. If a candidate wanted to double-check a sample of the eSlates, to make sure they had the same votes as in the election night tallies, that should be easy and cheap to do.

Another important lesson is that future voting systems (electronic or otherwise) need to be explicitly engineered with recounts and other sorts of audits at the core of their functionality. Of course, we also want the sorts of voter verifiability security properties that DRE systems like the eSlate lack, but this experience made it clear to me that we have a lot of room to improve basic recounting and auditing procedures. At the end of the day, the goal is to convince the losing candidate that he or she genuinely lost. I don’t know whether this particular candidate was convinced.

So now we know, and I thank Dan for the detailed information. I like the suggestions about enabling audits and giving candidates different choices for how to conduct recounts. What do you think?

Dan Wallach: Energy pricing 2012

This is a guest post that follows up on an earlier guest post.

Dan Wallach

Last year, I wrote a guest article for Off The Kuff where I discussed the complexity of trying to get a good price on your electric bill. In Houston, we have seemingly hundreds of companies who will gladly take our money in return for electricity. Which should you choose? The place to begin remains PowerToChoose.com, but the market has changed a bunch from when I last took a look.

If you really dig around PowerToChoose, you’ll see all these companies you’ve never heard of, each of which has a piece of clip-art on its web page of a beautiful meadow with a shining sun, or maybe a happy family with perfect teeth. (Exercise for the reader running the Chrome browser: you can right-click on those pictures, and select “Search Google with this image”, and see how widespread those stock images are used. In one case, the smiling family I saw also appeared in web sites for a car dealership, a dentist, a youth ministry, a nutrition supplements company, and an alarm system company.)

Last year, it was common for these companies to offer low teaser rates for the first month that bubbled them up to the top of the list. You’d then pay the regular higher rate thereafter. This made it very difficult to do comparison shopping, since you had to dig deeper into the “electricity facts label” sheets to find out what the real prices were. It also created a huge incentive for you to switch companies every month.

At the time, I decided to switch to Pennywise Power, who was advertising a relatively low variable rate. I was entirely happy with them until this July, when their prices exploded. My bill for June was $197.99 for 1873 kWh ($0.105 per kWh, after taxes, fees, and such). My bill for July was $289.78 for 1662 kWh ($0.174 per kWh). It’s come back down again, but at least for two months, they were charging far above other companies’ advertised rates. (Note: the wholesale market for electricity went bonkers at the end of June, and some of that was clearly passed on to me.)

My conclusion last year was that Pennywise’s rates were low enough to be attractive, but I apparently failed to notice my own warning:

“Variable rates” aren’t connected to much of anything beyond the whims of the executives who set these rates. If you read the legal verbiage closely, they can change your rate, at any time, to any price they want.

After seeing the shocking July bill, I figured it was time to jump into a fixed rate product, so back I went to PowerToChoose.com and slogged through the various options. These days, the low teaser rates from last year are all gone. Now, the advertised price seems to be the price you actually pay, but things are still a bit wonky. One of the tricks I observed with Pennywise is that their pricing, which included a $9.95 “base charge” if you use less than 1000 kWh, creates some perverse incentives if your electrical usage is just below that number per month. Wasting energy to get over the top might save you real money! This year, I resolved to find the best fixed price with zero “base” charge. That led me to Summer Energy, where I inked a one year lock-in at $0.093 per kWh. (If you sign up today, with the proper promotion code, it’s $0.085 per kWh.) My first bill showed up for the back half of July, and it included a $4.89 base charge! I had to threaten to abandon them if they didn’t fix it, and they eventually came around.

So, what have we learned here? First, when you’re doing business with faceless companies who advertise low rates, you might expect to have unexpected charges and unusual behaviors. (Summer Energy still hasn’t sorted out my request to set up automatic credit card payment.)

Second, this “deregulated” market could stand to have more regulation. If you read the electricity fact sheets that our vendors are required to publish, there’s a remarkable amount of diversity among them, and lots of fine print they leave out. If I were king for a day, all of these fixed “base rate” fees would be standardized, simplifying vendor competition to price per kilowatt-hour within equivalence classes of different percentages of “renewable” energy.

Finally, a word about the future. A buddy of mine in California got himself a fancy solar panel system on his house. He sells excess capacity back to the grid, but it’s much better than that. His electric utility company (for which he has no choice) has tiered rates. The more electricity he burns, the more he pays. But by selling power back, he stays out of the higher rate tiers. He also gets tax credits and other incentives that aren’t available in Houston; some other Texas utilities offer rebates, but Centerpoint has nothing in our area. In theory, with our shiny new smart meters, we could have some all kinds of sophisticated billing policies like variable day/night rates or solar systems that let you sell power back to the grid, but these aren’t happening yet. I suspect this is an unfortunate side effect of our multi-vendor deregulated market. (Reliant does have a plan that lets you sell power back, but the base electrical rate is uncompetitive.)

If you dig deeper into your electrical bill, you’re paying a big chunk of your bill to Centerpoint for “delivering” your electricity, no matter who you’re paying for your juice. That’s the place where we might eventually see some innovation. Centerpoint could charge variable time-of-day or tiered rates, they could buy back your electricity if you have solar, and so forth. One of these days, I might buy myself an electric car, and I’d be keen to have more sophisticated electrical pricing in place before then.

Dan Wallach is a professor of computer science at Rice University.

On getting the best deal with variable electric rates

Note: The following was written by my friend Dan Wallach, who thought I might be interested in sharing it here. He was right. My thanks to Dan for putting this together.

Everybody in Houston has the ability to select any one of hundreds of different electrical pricing plans from a variety of vendors. If you visit the PowerToChoose.com web site, you can see all the different rates listed. Some are “variable” rate, with the lowest currently advertised at 5.3 cents/kWh. Others let you lock in a fixed rate for some period of time (the cheapest currently listed is 8.3 cents/kWh for a six month term). A few plans are “indexed” (meaning they track the spot price of natural gas), with the cheapest currently going for 10.7 cents/kWh. On top of all these different plan styles, there is also a significant variation in the “percentage of renewable content” from one plan to another, as well as variation in various freebies and incentives.

I wanted to keep it simple. Just give me the lowest price, please. I initially signed up with Amigo Energy, who in 2008 offered me something like 7.5 cents/kWh without requiring me to make any kind of deposit. At the time, they were one of the cheapest vendors around. That sounded great, and they even gave me free tickets at one point to a Houston Dynamo playoff game. Thanks! I didn’t really pay much attention to my electrical prices again until I noticed a recent bill was over 13 cents/kWh, earlier this summer, when the extreme heat was giving me some extreme electrical bills. I called them up and they said that they had discontinued the program I signed up for, so they unilaterally decided to raise my price to a much higher number. Oh, and would I like to switch to another plan? Lovely.

Lesson 1: “Variable rates” aren’t connected to much of anything beyond the whims of the executives who set these rates. If you read the legal verbiage closely, they can change your rate, at any time, to any price they want.

I want the lowest rate I can get. PowerToChoose.com listed several vendors offering 5.5 (give or take) cents/kWh, including one company I’d actually heard of before: Reliant Energy. Several of the vendors explicitly say that their cheap rate is “introductory” and you’ll be switched to the regular rate after one month. Reliant, however, makes no such caveat, at least not that was immediately obvious, so earlier this summer I dumped Amigo and went with Reliant. My first month was cheap. The bill that just arrived, however, averages to 7.5 cents/kWh (including taxes) on 2061 kWh of charges. That’s a $155.39 bill, which is still reasonable in the grand scheme of things for an August in Houston, but it wasn’t the $113.36 that I would have paid at my original rate, either. Oh, and if I call up Reliant on the phone to complain, the contract seems to say that they can charge me $5.95 to speak to a human being. No thanks.

Lesson 2: See lesson 1.

Challenge: how can I consistently pay these low advertised rates? Do I have to switch companies every month? As it turns out, every one of these companies is required to publish an “electrical facts label,” and those tend to include a pointer to a web page with their historical prices. The table below has the actual rates that I’ve been able to glean from these web sites. This was far more difficult to put together than it should have been. (Notes: all of this data was compiled on September 11 from PowerToChoose.com and the various vendors’ web sites. All prices are based on monthly rates at 1000 kWh usage and include CenterPoint delivery charges. If you’re outside of Houston and don’t have CenterPoint, your rates will be different. If you use less than 1000 kWh, many vendors tack on a surcharge that increases your effective electrical rate.)

Company / Product Initial Advertised Rate (at 1000 kWh / month) Historical Rates (at 1000 kWh / month)
First Choice Power (“First Choice Web Advantage Flex”) 5.3¢ No historical rates are on their web site for this specific product. Other products are much more expensive (all greater than 13¢).
Reliant Energy (“Basic Power Flex Plan”) 5.4¢ 8.2 – 10.0¢
Pennywise Power (“Wise Buy Monthly”) 5.4¢ 6.3 – 7.2¢
StarTex Power (“Promotional Month to Month”) 5.5¢ 11.3 – 13.8¢
Bounce Energy (“Thrifty Saver Promotional”) 5.5¢ 11.2 – 13.9¢, but with various promotions, coupons, etc.
Mega Man LP (“Mega Man Savings Plan”) 5.5¢ 11.8 – 12.5¢
Veteran Energy (“Freedom Month to Month”) 5.9¢ 12-13¢
Frontier Utilities (“Winter 11 Special Online Intro”) 6.4¢ 7.8-8.3¢ (only two historical prices are present, so this isn’t very meaningful)
APNA Energy (“Promotional Newcomer Variable”) 7.3¢ 12.3-13.1¢

Beyond this, prices jump two cents or so and we’re starting to see the various “renewable” energy products. What’s actually going on when you sign up for one of these plans is, at best, unclear. The electrons being pumped into your house are coming from the same power plants over the same grid, no matter who you’re actually paying for your service. (Hint: very few of the companies listed above actually own real electric plants. They buy power wholesale and sell it to you at retail.) What you are really doing, when you buy “renewable” power, is buying the same power as anybody else, plus you’re buying “renewable energy credits” (RECs). There’s a whole secondary market for RECs, which the “renewable” power generators sell and which you’re indirectly buying. In theory, this incentivizes power companies to increase their “renewable” capacity so they can capture those extra dollars themselves. In practice? There’s a very good 2009 study on the REC market. At one point, REC prices went negative! Suffice to say that the REC market is a work in progress.

If your goal is to reduce carbon emissions, you could buy “renewable” power, which might eventually do something, or you could invest in making your house more energy efficient, which does something right now. I’m going with plan B (“ask me about overpriced LED lighting!”), but you’re welcome to choose plan A if you want. So what do you pay for “100% renewable” power at variable prices?

Company / Product Initial Advertised Rate (at 1000 kWh / month) Historical Rates (at 1000 kWh / month)
Bounce Energy (“Organic Power Promotional”) 9.3¢ 12.9-14.4¢
Reliant Energy (“Monthly Flex 100% Texas Wind”) 9.4¢ no historical data provided for this product
Kinetic Energy (“Go Green Monthly”) 9.9¢ 7.5-13.3¢
Texas Power (“Promo Pure Variable Month to Month”) 9.9¢ no historical data provided for this product
Gexa Energy (“SmoothStart Green”) 10.4¢ no historical data provided for this product

Okay, let’s try to draw some conclusions. First, the low rates you see advertised on PowerToChoose.com are strictly for the first month of service. After that, your rates will go up, sometimes by a surprising amount. If you want to continue paying the low rate, then you’re going to have to be vigilant about what you’re being charged and you’re going to have to change companies every single month.

If you find that bothersome, then the best deal on the board today seems to be PennyWise. PennyWise is owned by NRG Energy, which also owns Reliant and Green Mountain Energy. In effect, PennyWise is their “discount” brand and Reliant is the “commercial” brand. Whatever. I’m switching to PennyWise and we’ll see whether they continue to have good prices or not.

Sidebar: What if I wanted to put in solar panels?

I’ve been pondering this for years. The front side of my house faces south. There’s a big area on the front roof, unobstructed by trees or anything else, that could well have some nice big solar panels on it. Reliant (but not PennyWise) offers two different programs, announced earlier this year. In one, you “lease” all the gear and in the other, you buy your own gear. Either way, you sell power back to the grid when you’ve got excess generation. Nowhere on any of their web pages are there actual hard numbers. If I buy, what will the gear and installation cost? If I lease, what do I pay up front and per month? Can I buy/sell power with any company on PowerToChoose or do I have to deal with Reliant? What do I pay on and off-peak for power under the variable plan? (I’ve only been able to find an old copy of their fact sheet which has uncompetitive prices.)

I don’t want to deal with a salesman. Please just post all the numbers online, maybe in a convenient Excel spreadsheet, so I can play with it on my own. If you want to be cool, put together an online calculator, like the banks do for mortgages, that asks you all the right questions and then estimates all the costs. Help me calculate when I break even on the deal.