E-voting worries focus on failures, not fraud
Papering over the cracks
Major electronic voting machine problems occurred in at least six US states during the country's midterm elections, underscoring that system failure, not fraud, is the biggest issue facing future races, voting-rights activists and technologists said this week.
Machine problems delayed voting in many precincts in Colorado, Florida, Indiana, and Ohio, requiring election officials to keep the polls open late. Problems in Montana delayed the final tally of the results in that state, and in New Jersey, about five per cent of machines had some sort of problem, though the issues were characterized as minor in news reports.
While the Democratic sweep of the elections may have quelled early partisan concerns regarding fraud, widespread machines failures are not any more acceptable, said Eugene Spafford, a professor of computer science at Purdue University and the chair of the US Public Policy Committee for the Association for Computing Machinery.
"From the standpoint of a technologist, we can and should do better," Spafford said. "As a country, we have to do better than machines that can fail and are impossible to audit."
The US midterm elections were the most recent test for electronic voting machines. Many critics warned of the danger of fraud prior to Tuesday's election. The Democrats sweeping win across the nation appears to be the best rebuttal to the worries of some partisan critics. For example, before the election, some Democrats -most notably U.S. Representative Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)- seemed prepared to blame a loss on vote fraud.
"That is the only variable in this," Pelosi told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Will we have an honest count?''
However, the danger of a elections being hacked are less of a concern among nonpartisan critics than machine failure, said Courtenay Bhatia, president of election watchdog VerifiedVoting.org.
"The real issue is not fraud," Bhatia said. "The real issue is transparency and whether we have enough transparency to know that our elections are accurate. If problems occur, they are likely to be from errors due to failure or administering the system incorrectly."
While obvious fraud did not occur, software bugs, hardware failure, and poll workers' errors were not in short supply - such problems peppered the electoral landscape on Tuesday.
One widespread phenomenon, at least anecdotally, was the issue of "vote flipping" or "vote jumping," where a voter would discover that pressing the checkbox beside one candidate's name would somehow select a rival. The problem was also reported during the 2004 presidential election as well, Bhatia said.
"That really needs to be independently investigated," said Bhatia. "That is an example of a problem that we had before that obviously didn't get corrected."
The problems had some election workers willing to go back to a simpler time. In Florida's Broward County, one polling station could not get 10 out of 14 machines to accept votes for the first two hours of the election, according to news reports.
"I have two words for them - paper ballots!" 10-year veteran election volunteer John Miller, 78, told the Miami Herald. "I come from New England and they're still using paper ballots. They have no problems."
Yet, paper ballots also led to a long wait for the final tally, significant errors in counting and still did not eliminate or significantly reduce the chance of fraud, said Daniel Tokaji, an assistant professor of law at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law.
"I think it is people's intuition that paper is a panacea, but history tells us otherwise," Tokaji said. "The whole reason that we went away from paper ballots to lever machines was because paper was manipulatable."
Purdue University's Spafford stressed that the election problems this year were minor compared to what could happen. Machine failures in a critical state could create an election crisis if there is no backup method for counting people's votes cast on defective machines, he said, adding that such worries are not the province of any particular party.
"The technologists that I know who are concerned about this, span the political spectrum," Spafford said. "They want something that is good for the country - it is not a political issue."
Tokaji agreed that future problems could significantly hinder elections, but maintained that the paper trail mandated by more than half of U.S. states could be the heart of the issue. In a May primary in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, numerous problems, including a large number of failure in the printing of voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) ballots, plagued the election.
"I'm very concerned about how well VVPAT recounts are going to work in a close election," Tokaji said. "In Cuyahoga County, there was a lot of problems in the primary, but the finding that troubles me was that (many of) the VVPAT records were damaged or somehow compromised, and that concerns me in a close election."
In the future, the academics and voting-system critics need to work more closely with election officials, Thomas Wilkey, executive director of the Election Assistance Commission, said in an interview prior to the election. The EAC has just completed its public comment period on the federal certification guidelines for new voting systems.
"I am not going to take away from any of the work these folks have done," Wilkey said. "What we would love to see happen is the scientists the academics get together with the true election officials out there."
Until now, most election officials have been wary of academicians, but after the latest election, maybe that will change.
This article originally appeared in Security Focus.
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