Ramblings & ephemera

3 problems with electronic voting

From Avi Rubin’s “Voting: Low-Tech Is the Answer” (Business Week: 30 October 2006):

Unfortunately, there are three problems with electronic voting that have nothing to do with whether or not the system works as intended. They are transparency, recovery, and audit. …

Electronic voting is not transparent – it is not even translucent. There is no way to observe the counting of the votes publicly, and you can’t even tell if the votes are being recorded correctly. …

Now, what do we do if something goes very wrong during the election? What happens if the equipment fails or there is a power outage?

Let’s compare electronic voting machines to paper ballots. If an e-voting machine crashes, it is possible that the memory cards containing the votes could be corrupted. Something as unexpected as someone spilling coffee on the machine could cause it to fail.

There are dozens of ways one could imagine that an electronic voting machine could be rendered a paperweight. Imagine, for example, a widespread power outage on Election Day. How do you continue the election? What can you do to recover votes already cast? …

I don’t feel very good about the only copies of all of the votes in a precinct existing in electronic form on flash memory cards. … If we have paper ballots and the power goes out, we can get some flashlights and continue voting.

Electronic voting is vulnerable to all sorts of problems, many of which cannot be anticipated. For example, in Maryland’s September primary, voting systems were delivered to the precincts in Montgomery County without the smart cards needed to activate the votes. As a result, the polls opened hours late, and thousands of voters were affected.

There was no quick and easy recovery mechanism. It is true that the problem was due to human error, but that does not change the fact that there was no way to recover. Paper ballot systems are much less fragile and can withstand many of the unexpected problems that might arise on Election Day. …

Finally, and I believe most seriously, there is no way to independently audit a fully electronic voting system. While it is true that many of the machines keep multiple copies of the votes, these copies are not independent. If the machines are rigged, or if they suffer from unknown software bugs …, the election results might not reflect the votes that were cast, despite all of the copies of the votes being identical.

On the other hand, electronic counting of paper ballots can be audited by manually counting the paper and comparing the results to the electronic tally. It is imperative, in fact, that every software-based system be audited in a manner that is independent from the data that are the subject of the audit.

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