net.wars: Vote early, vote often?

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 26 January 2007

It is a truth that ought to be universally acknowledged that the more you know about computer security the less you are in favour of electronic voting.

Wendy M Grossman

We thought - optimists that we are - that the UK had abandoned the idea after all the reports of glitches from the US and the rather indeterminate results of a couple of small pilots a few years ago. But no: there are plans for further trials for the local elections in May.

It's good news, therefore, that London is to play host to two upcoming events to point out all the reasons why we should be cautious.

The first, February 6, is a screening of the HBO movie Hacking Democracy, a sort of documentary thriller.

The second, February 8, is a conference bringing together experts from several countries, most prominently Rebecca Mercuri, who was practically the first person to get seriously interested in the security problems surrounding electronic voting. Both events are being sponsored by the Open Rights Group and the Foundation for Information Policy Research, and will be held at University College London. Here is further information and links to reserve seats. Go, if you can. It's free.

Hacking Democracy (a popular download) tells the story of Bev Harris and Andy Stephenson. Harris was minding her own business in Seattle in 2000 when the hanging chad hit the Supreme Court. She began to get interested in researching voting troubles, and then one day found online a copy of the software that runs the voting machines provided by Diebold, one of the two leading manufacturers of such things. (And, by the way, the company whose CEO vowed to deliver Ohio to Bush.) The movie follows this story and beyond, as Harris and Stephenson dumpster-dive, query election officials, and document a steady stream of glitches that all add up to the same point: electronic voting is not secure enough to protect democracy against fraud.

Harris and Stephenson are not, of course, the only people working in this area. Among computer experts such as Mercuri, David Chaum, David Dill, Deirdre Mulligan, Avi Rubin, and Peter Neumann, there's never been any question that there is a giant issue here. Much argument has been spilled over the question of how votes are recorded; less so around the technology used by the voter to choose preferences.

One faction - primarily but not solely vendors of electronic voting equipment - sees nothing wrong with Direct Recording Electronic, machines that accept voter input all day and then just spit out tallies.

The other group argues that you can't trust a computer to keep accurate counts, and that you have to have some way for voters to check that the vote they thought they cast is the vote that was actually recorded.

A number of different schemes have been proposed for this, but the idea that's catching on across the US (and was originally promoted by Mercuri) is adding a printer that spits out a printed ballot the voter can see for verification. That way, if an audit is necessary there is a way to actually conduct one. Otherwise all you get is the machine telling you the same number over again, like a kid who has the correct answer to his maths homework but mysteriously can't show you how he worked the problem.

This is where it's difficult to understand the appeal of such systems in the UK. Americans may be incredulous - I was - but a British voter goes to the polls and votes on a small square of paper with a stubby, little pencil.

Everything is counted by hand. The UK can do this because all elections are very, very simple. There is only one election - eg, local council, or Parliament - at a time, and you vote for one of only a few candidates.

In the US, where a lemon is the size of an orange, an orange is the size of a grapefruit, and a grapefruit is the size of a soccer ball, elections are complicated and on any given polling day there are a lot of them. The famous California governor's recall that elected Arnold Schwarzeneger, for example, had hundreds of candidates; even a more average election in a less referendum-happy state than California may have a dozen races, each with six to ten candidates.

And you know Americans: they want results NOW. Like staying up for two or three days watching the election returns is a bad thing.

It is of course true that election fraud has existed in all eras; you can "lose" a box of marked paper ballots off the back of a truck, or redraw districts according to political allegiance, or "clean" people off the electoral rolls. But those types of fraud are harder to cover up entirely. A flawed count in an electronic machine run by software the vendor allows no one to inspect just vanishes down George Orwell's memory hole.

What I still can't figure out is why politicians are so enthusiastic about all this. Yes, secure machines with well-designer user interfaces might get rid of the problem of "spoiled" and therefore often uncounted ballots. But they can't really believe - can they? - that fancy voting technology will mean we're more likely to elect them? Can it?

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).