November 10, 2004

An End To E-Voting Conspiracy Theories

I would like to address Tyler's point. The exit poll graphs that I posted are not evidence that the election was hacked. I do not really believe that the election was stolen through voter fraud. It most likely was not. I would just like to remind people of the problems with current state of electronic voting, which are the fact that it is paperless and the appearance of impropriety.

The fact that most electronic machines are paperless means that they cannot be audited and recounts cannot be undertaken. This is a problem because:

  • The software that underlies them is a "trade secret" which cannot be inspected for flaws in an open fashion (for instance by academic computer scientists).
  • There are flaws in the software (for instance, in Florida the machines counted votes to 32,000 and then started counting backwards on a few ballot initiatives).
  • There are flaws in the engineering of the machines that make them susceptible to hacking (in particular they run an insecure setup with Microsoft Access that has been demonstrated as hackable and alterable to hide modifications).
  • Inaccurate vote totals lead to suspicion (on a number of occasions the vote totals have exceeded the total number of registered voters in an area, while this may be a glitch with voter logs or the computer assigning voters to the wrong county, it does lead to suspicion).

The appearance of impropriety among the companies that manufacture the voting machines undermines confidence in the results. Here is a short list:

  • Senator Chuck Hagel won a landslide victory in Nebraska. His campaign treasurer had been president of ES&S, the voting equipment manufacturer for Nebraska, and Hagel had an investment of $1-$5 million in his company, which owned 25% of ES&S.
  • Diebold's CEO said that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President".
  • Leaked Diebold memos exposed flaws in the software and bad engineering (see exerts here)
  • Diebold claimed that it cannot manufacture voting machine that produced a paper receipt because of the danger of paper jams causing problems (Diebold manufactures most ATM machine in the USA). California is suing Diebold for false claims about its machines.

None of these points are evidence of anything. But they definitely don't inspire confidence that the results will be accurate, which is probably the most important factor in a democracy.

Here is the reasonable response from David Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford:

Computerized voting equipment is inherently subject to programming error, equipment malfunction, and malicious tampering. It is therefore crucial that voting equipment provide a voter-verifiable audit trail, by which we mean a permanent record of each vote that can be checked for accuracy by the voter before the vote is submitted, and is difficult or impossible to alter after it has been checked. Many of the electronic voting machines being purchased do not satisfy this requirement. Voting machines should not be purchased or used unless they provide a voter-verifiable audit trail; when such machines are already in use, they should be replaced or modified to provide a voter-verifiable audit trail. Providing a voter-verifiable audit trail should be one of the essential requirements for certification of new voting systems.

There would be not conspiracy theories if we simply provided every voter with a paper receipt which they would verify and drop into a voting box, and which could be recounted in case of a dispute.

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