Making E-Votes Count
There is one widely accepted and simple solution to the black-box problem, and it is already being employed by other computers
involved in high-stakes transactions, such as ATMs and credit-card readers: a paper receipt
that ensures an accurate physical record of your vote.
In e-voting-speak, this is known as a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) or, sometimes, the Mercuri method.
Popularized by and named after Harvard University research fellow and computer scientist Rebecca Mercuri, the VVPAT system requires DREs to include printers that produce a paper receipt under glass. Voters review their choices, hit “OK,” and the paper falls into a lockbox. After the election, officials have something tangible to count.
Earlier this year, Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller made a deal with e-voting-machine vendor Sequoia to retrofit the state’s DREs with printers that produce a paper trail using the Mercuri method. (Most current DREs were built without printers to keep the machines’ cost down.) During tests, paper tallies revealed that votes cast in Spanish on two ballot measures had not been recorded into machine memory. Without a VVPAT, this may never have been found. The machines’ first statewide real-world use, in a September primary, was widely heralded as a success.
Another, less expensive remedy is to identify any problems in a machine’s code through extensive aftermarket testing by volunteers. “Logic and accuracy” tests take place a few days or weeks before an election. Typically, several machines throughout the county are chosen at random, and two volunteer testers (often a Democrat and a Republican) are assigned to each one. One votes, while the other notes how the tester voted and how the machine recorded the vote. The records are then compared for anomalies.
On Election Day, random e-voting machines are taken out of the polling places throughout the day and subjected to a more rigorous version of this test. This “parallel testing” ensures that the machines haven’t been tampered with since the last test or that hackers haven’t programmed them to behave differently only on Election Day.
These kinds of security measures are currently voluntary, but the forthcoming federal guidelines are expected to make them mandatory. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), a standards-making group for electrical engineering and computer sciences, has created a task force to come up with just such a guideline, which members of the EAC hope to adopt. But the IEEE effort is moving slowly because of internal bickering among the task force, which includes both voting rights activists and representatives of some of the largest voting-machine vendors in the country. At issue: whether a paper trail should be part of the mandate. If it is, vendors will have to recall existing machines to graft on printers, at significant expense to the company or the state.
Saving the 2004 Election
While officials argue about protocols, computer scientists, legislators and concerned citizens are doing what they can to avert a 2004 Election Day digital debacle.
California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, in consultation with experts, came up with his own security guidelines, announcing in April that all voting machines in California must produce a paper audit trail or conform to 23 specific conditions before the presidential election. These include allowing the state access to the machines’ source code, as well as parallel testing.
California will also offer a “paper or plastic” choice at the polls. Voters will have the option of using a paper ballot instead of the e-voting machines. In other places where voting rights activists feel the machines are unreliable, they are encouraging people to vote using absentee ballots.
In addition, battles are being fought on the legal front. Eight Maryland citizens filed a suit seeking an injunction against their state’s use of Diebold machines, while several groups, including the Verified Voting Foundation (founded by Dill) and Citizens’ Alliance for Secure Elections, have argued that an Ohio suit challenging election security could be resolved if state officials would mandate the use of paper audit trails. The Texas Safe Voting Coalition has been working with the American Civil Liberties Union to force the Texas voting examiners board to open its meetings so that the public can monitor the choosing of e-voting machines. And two bills that would require e-voting machines to have paper audit trails are making their way through Congress.
On Election Day, a group called TechWatch, made up of computer scientists and other volunteers, will monitor
e-voting machines across the country. When trouble strikes—machines crash or suspiciously large numbers of votes for one candidate show up in a low-traffic polling place—the problem will be posted to the group’s Web site, and a TechWatcher will be dispatched to document the problem and attempt to fix it. After the polls close, the group will have a detailed picture of which machines failed and where security may have been breached. If there’s a recount, TechWatch can use this evidence to determine whether concerns about voting machine accuracy in particular areas are well founded.
These stopgap efforts are heartening, but according to Diebold-exposer Rubin, the inherent instability of the current crop of DREs makes it impossible to guarantee a smooth election. “At this point,” he says, “either the machines will work, or they won’t.”
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