Tech & society

eVoting issues ignored

The nation’s mass media continue to turn a blind eye to the issue of eVoting, based on the lack of advance or followup reporting of a Maryland conference on the subject.

The split between technologists (who urge caution and worry about security) and corporations/government officials (who urge adoption and seem concerned only with vote counts that are faster and cheaper) was highlighted Dec. 10-11 at the “Building Trust and Confidence in Voting Systems” conference at the National Institute of Standards & Technology in Gaithersburg, Md.

Classic propaganda techniques should make all of us take notice. Representatives of the big four firms and government officials refer to security professionals as “black helicopter people” … in other words, “conspiracy buffs, X-files folks.” This is an attempt to paint the critics as “fringe” or “lunatic” in the minds of voters, when in fact the technologists are esteemed professionals in their field.

As noted here last month, the Congressional Research Service reported that electronic voting machines pose “substantially greater” risk than other voting systems. [Not exactly a fringe research organization.]

Government bucks
However, money talks, and big money screams. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA, P.L. 107-252) has put $4 billion on the table, and corporations and election officials are scrambling for their piece of the public pie.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, (D-NY) has introduced a bill that would require a paper trail and security standards for voting machines; a similiar bill is sponsored by Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-NJ). And some election equipment firms are also calling for a paper trail.

However, some skeptics note that a paper trail only means that the vote “on the screen” matches that on the paper; behind-the-scene (black box) manipulations remain possible.

Low tech solution?
A paper trail does provide for a separate audit mechanism in the case of contested votes; most computerized voting systems lack such a safeguard. In fact, Diebold employees have reportedly performed recounts in several elections, because the firm prohibits others from viewing source code or other proprietary information. How can election officials certify results in these circumstances?

Opponents of a paper trail include advocates for the blind, the big four machine makers (Diebold, in particular, has deep Republican ties), and election officials. In an emotionally-laden soundbite that deflects the core issues, Colorado Secretary of State Donetta Davidson reportedly said, “The average election judge in Colorado is 70 years old. Can they even change the paper rolls in the printers? What happens if the printer jams and people can’t get receipts? Can they not vote?”

“Paper rolls”? She really thinks we’d be using dot-matrix printers and green-and-white perforated computer paper?

What does this statement say about how much we value democracy?

Paper ballots, the low-tech solution, are less expensive and more secure than computerized voting or punch cards. So why are we spending $4 billion on computerized voting with no requirement for paper audits?

I’m with Peter G. Neumann, moderator of ACM’s forum on risks to the public in computers and related systems. Paper ballots. Period, end of story. OCR counting if speed is a must, but the count is *unofficial* and for media consumption only. Print the ballots on site (with laser printers) if complicated ballots rule the day. [Complex ballots are cited by election officials as justification for computerizing voting.]

Lack of depth
Nor do reporters seem to be doing much research before writing.

ComputerWorld reported that Hart InterCivic Inc. called a Ohio review a “very positive report.” Contrast that with an Associated Press report from earlier in the month (also not widely picked up) when Ohio ruled that security issues were too widespread to certify machines for the 2004 election:

Companies that tested the security systems of the four machine types found software that permits votes to be counted more than once, and a risk that unauthorized poll workers or others could gain access to the system.

Identical passwords were discovered for more than one poll worker, while voting booth cases did not provide for locks, leaving a risk of tampering during transportation of ballots.

Each of the voting systems provided by the four vendors — Diebold Election Systems, Sequoia Voting Systems, Election Systems & Software and Maximus/Hart Intercivic/DFM Associates — has multiple but not identical problems…

If this is a “positive” report, I would hate to read a negative one.

The best coverage I’ve found on this issue has been on

Links: [only four NewsGoogle stories today] Newark Star Ledger (15 Dec); NYTimes (15 Dec – free registration required); Business Week (13 Dec and 12 Dec); Computer World (12 Dec);

By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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