Technology

Voting: Low-Tech Is the Answer


On Nov. 7, more Americans will vote on electronic voting machines than ever before. No fewer than 39% of voters will cast their ballots electronically. Many of these votes will be cast on machines without any paper record. The votes will be fully electronic. As a computer science professor, and as someone who has been studying electronic voting for years, I am nervous.

Don't get me wrong; I love computers and electronics. I am one of those early adopters who buys the latest gadget before all the kinks have been worked out. And that is one of the reasons why I think electronic voting is a bad idea. Any system adopted too quickly is going to have kinks. We should not use the public as the beta testers of new voting systems.

If wringing the bugs out of the systems were my main concern, I would be optimistic about the future of electronic voting. After all, eventually we could produce a stable system. 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.

Easily Understood A system is transparent if its users easily understand its operation. In the case of voting machines, the users are the voters, the election officials, the candidates, and the poll workers. Basically, everybody.

Producing anything that is easily understood by everybody is enough of a challenge. The last things we need are opaque boxes full of silicon and electrons mysteriously computing functions and outputting the election results. I have a Ph.D. in computer science, and I can't look at a computer and tell if it is counting votes correctly.

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. Anyone inclined toward suspicion or conspiracy theory will believe that this type of technology validates his/her fears.

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?

Get Some Flashlights 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. These are not digital pictures on the flash cards, and the risk is not the loss of that special Kodak moment. I have lost enough pictures because of failing memory and crashing computers to know that votes are too precious for this medium. 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.

Count the Paper 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 (as was exemplified beautifully in the movie Man of the Year), 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.

It may be difficult to grasp that progress means realizing that the high-tech way is not necessarily the best way. Once we come to that realization, we can move toward voting systems that are transparent, that can recover from unexpected disasters, and that can be audited.

Avi Rubin is a professor of computer science at the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Brave New Ballot: The Battle to Safeguard Democracy in the Age of Electronic Voting (BraveNewBallot.org).

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