Compared to What: Voting Technologies

Earlier this month, the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics released the source code for a pilot system designed to facilitate overseas and military voting online.  It took just 36 hours for computer scientist and Freedom to Tinker blogger J. Alex Halderman and his students at the University of Michigan to hack into the system.  They pierced the veil of the secret ballot by uncovering the names and 16-digit passwords of all 937 voters invited to use the system on November 2.  Halderman’s team changed votes that had been cast and altered the code so that the University of Michigan fight song played whenever a new ballot was successfully cast.  Most troubling, Halderman saw signs that computer users in Iran and China tried to crack the network infrastructure’s master password, which his team obtained from an equipment manual.  Professor Halderman explained that a “real attack might be completely invisible and could go undetected for much longer.”

As the Washington Post editorial page notes, the “motivation for online voting is laudable.”  Overseas military ballots routinely fail to be counted due to distance and spotty mail service.  Nonetheless, experts agree that Internet voting isn’t the answer.  After the D.C. pilot source code’s release, Halderman, along with computer scientist Jeremy Epstein of the policy group SRI International, testified before the D.C. Elections Board.  The take-away from the hearings: Internet voting seems the riskiest of all voting options and ought to be scrapped.  As Epstein told the New York Times, “The next set of people who test it will find a whole new set of problems.”

So if Internet voting isn’t the answer, what do experts recommend in light of serious security and privacy problems raised by touch screen electronic voting machines?  Interestingly, many have called for a return to the paper ballot.  But as Professor Ned Foley noted at this Friday’s Privacy, Democracy & Elections conference sponsored by the William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, paper is the least trustworthy option: election officials and poll workers have difficulty counting accurately and paper ballots bring a long history of tampering and corruption.  After the conference, Jeremy Epstein shared with me his recommendations for future voting systems.  Epstein urged states and localities to replace touch-screen e-voting systems with optical scan machines.  Optical scan machines count paper ballots, providing greater counting accuracy than humans while providing software independence.  Epstein explained that unlike touch screen machines that typically offer no independent means to audit election results (and those that have paper print outs attached have run into serious printing problems), optical scan machines  inherently provide a paper trail that can be audited.  Epstein noted that risk limiting audits reveal an approximately 98% accuracy rate by auditing 500 ballots in  a single-ballot auditing scheme.  Now, election officials tend to favor touch screen machines, because they prevent human error in marking ballots and conveniently preclude the possibility of recounts based on a review of voter intent.  No matter, Epstein sees optical scan machinery as the best available option.

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1 Response

  1. “and paper ballots bring a long history of tampering and corruption.”

    Yeah, and I suppose putting colored stones in a jar has an even longer history of tampering and corruption. That length of history compared to newer modes of voting is purely a function of them being newer. That said, I agree with Epstein about the best system currently out there.

    And I should note that, when a lot of people say “paper ballot”, optical scan is exactly what they mean. A physical ballot that the voter marks with some writing utensil is still a paper ballot, even if it gets optically scanned.

    The fact that elections officials find them a bit inconvenient should count for precisely nothing. Who did yo suppose was DOING that tampering and corruption? A significant faction of elections officials are going to oppose any voting scheme that makes vote rigging more difficult, just exactly because it does.

    I’d go so far as to say that, with any voting scheme, the primary group of people you have to make it secure against are the people implementing it.