Archive:Electronic voting machines

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Our Beef with E-voting

It seemed that the SCDC needed a position paper on electronic voting very badly, considering that it is the main source of our media attention. Therefore, let me put forth a tentative SCDC position, which I will edit if people leave constructive criticism in the comments. I'll arrange it in something similar to a Q & A format:

Q: What do you guys have against electronic voting? Are you Luddites?

A: We are definitely not Luddites (although the current use of the term is somewhat unfair to the original Luddites) or technophobes. We think that technology, coupled with a culture that understands how to interact with technology, has a lot of potential to make the world a better place.

However, electronic voting can inspire false confidence (many people fall prey to the fallacy that "more technology = better"), and it may mask subtle problems. Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines, such as the Diebold touchscreen machines, could have a serious negative effect on the security of the 2004 elections unless the entire system is revamped from top to bottom.
Allow us to provide a list of the problems we face with the current electronic voting systems:

(1) The public is not allowed to see the source code for the voting machine software or the underlying operating system. With closed-source, proprietary software, DRE's may be bug-ridden, or have backdoors built into them by the programmers, allowing people to influence elections. Voting software must be open-source and freely distributed, and the hardware must be built to specifications which are public. Voters have a right to know how their votes are counted, and the best way to catch bugs and malicious code (and to collect suggestions for improvements) is to make the information available to as many people as possible for review.  Australia has actually taken some huge steps in the right direction, which America should emulate, although the license on the source code for the Australian voting machines is somewhat more restrictive than the SCDC would like.

(2) Even if the computer code for the DRE is open source, it is difficult to prove that the compiled 1's and 0's on the actual voting machine in the voting booth were produced by the officially approved source code. In other words, the voting machine is a "black box"... it is very difficult to tell exactly what is going on inside of it. A company like Diebold could install unapproved "updates" to the software without telling anyone, as they seem to have already done in past elections. There are ways to verify that the code inside the machine is the code that ought to be there (such as using software cryptographically signed with PGP keys), but there are no such precautions built into current systems as far as I know, and even if there were it would be beyond the abilities of most election observers to check this for themselves. This is a difficulty shared by all electronic voting systems, closed-source or open-source.

(3) Most DRE's do not currently provide a verifiable paper ballot, which is truly inconceivable. Diebold also makes ATM's, and ATM's always have a paper trail... do we hold our elections to a lower standard of security than our financial transactions? DRE's which do not provide a verifiable paper ballot make it easier to fix elections on a massive scale. If paper printouts are provided for each electronic vote, then in order to fix an election there must be corrupt officials at each polling place to stuff the ballot boxes or destroy paper evidence of the votes. If the only evidence of a vote is a few bits on a DRE, all that is required to fix an election is to change those electronic bits. It is also possible that a simple malfunction in the voting machines could cause incorrect counts, without any chance for a recount... the original vote is lost forever, the information is gone.  Under such conditions, it is impossible to know for sure whether an election has been fixed or not, whether there has been a malfunction or not.  If you think the Florida recounts were a disaster, just imagine a disputed election where the evidence has vanished.

(4) Verifiable paper ballots are not sufficient, however. Each ballot must actually be voter-verified. If each electronic vote prints out a paper ballot which the voter checks for accuracy, then we know that the machine counted the vote the way in which the voter intended. If this does not happen, then the DRE could say that it counted a vote for Bush, when it really counted a vote for Gore, and the voter would have no way of knowing that he has been disenfranchised, whether by a malicious conspiracy or simply hardware or software malfunction. This is not possible with paper ballots, the paper ballot cannot help but record what you write on it. It is of course possible for humans to purposefully miscount paper ballots, but if this happens, then it can be discovered in a recount since there is a paper trail.

Q: So why do people want electronic voting? What are the perceived benefits?

A: Electronic voting is largely popular because of the perception that it will fix problems like those experienced in Florida in the 2000 presidential election. The Help America Vote Act made tons and tons of federal money available for voting technology, and companies like Diebold rushed into production with shoddy products in order to capture marketshare.

Of course, the irony is that with paperless (read: un-auditable) machines, there is both an increased risk of vote-counting problems (as the Diebold e-mail archive demonstrates) and NO MECHANISM to recount the votes. In other words, if another Florida happens, we'll basically just have to flip a coin.

One of the most important arguments in favor of electronic voting machines is that they will enable the disabled to vote unassisted. For instance, DRE's can tell blind people the options through headphones. This is a noble goal, and it is a valid reason to want to have electronic voting machines. The thing is, why is it not sufficient to make an electronic ballot-printing machine, which then could be verified by a blind person using a simple barcode scanner, or which could be printed with raised letters? Why must the voting be completely electronic (i.e. Direct Recording Electronic)? Is it right to say that just because a blind person may not be able to verify a printed paper ballot on their own, that nobody else should be allowed to verify their votes either? There are certainly ways that ballots could be designed that would allow blind people to verify their votes without assistance, but even if this were impossible, that wouldn't be a good reason to eliminate paper ballots, it is merely an argument for machines that aid in filling out and verifying the ballots.

Finally, there are the arguments that electronic voting allows us to tally votes more cheaply and quickly. My response is that we should take the time and money to get our elections right. Also, DRE's aren't more efficient at tallying our votes if they don't record our votes at all.

Unless we can build an electronic voting system that can meet these specifications before the 2004 election, I have little confidence in any vote cast using DRE's, and I recommend at least a temporary return to old-fashioned hand-written and hand-counted paper ballots. The most important thing that we can do right now is support Rush Holt's Voter Confidence bill.

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