Who Really Won?

Monday, November 08, 2004

An Election Judge/Computer Scientist Speaks Up

Not once:

Voting on a direct recording electronic voting machine, or DRE, is in many ways similar to transferring money from one account to another at an automated teller machine. But there is one critically important difference: no receipt. There will be no physical record produced that could later be used by your local election board to prove how you intended to vote.

After you cast your ballot on a DRE, the only official record of your choices will be the electronic record within the system itself. You will not be asked to look at a piece of paper that confirms your candidate selections. You will not leave that piece of paper behind for use in case of a recount.

Why is this a problem?

Without paper ballots that can be physically examined, the only recount possible is a review of the votes recorded by the DRE system itself. And if those votes were recorded incorrectly, no recount will fix the error. The incorrect result could never be detected, much less corrected.

Technical glitches and malfunctioning machines - the kinds of problems that occur with any computer system - could result in the loss of votes in unrecoverable ways. Worse, these fully electronic machines could be rigged - undetectably, because of the complexity of the software that runs them.

A bug in the software of an electronic voting system, whether accidental or intentional, has the potential to skew results in more than an isolated polling place or two. It could impact the vote totals on many thousands of machines in hundreds of precincts.

Elections, by their nature, are adversarial. In a successful election, the loser should be as convinced as the winner that the outcome is legitimate, despite the potentially strong party loyalties of the people running the mechanics of the process.

One of our safeguards in the United States is that members of the two principal parties are present to watch each other through every facet of an election. The utility of this security measure is diminished when the votes are invisible and the counting is virtual. DREs reduce the transparency of the voting process, and traditional checks and balances become ineffective.

Even if, on Wednesday, this election appears to have been a success, there will be no way of knowing for sure whether the will of the people was accomplished.

But twice:

One by one, we removed the memory cards from the machines. I held them in my hand as chief judge Marie was ready to load them into one of the machines that we designated as the accumulator. How fragile. All of the votes from the entire precinct in my hand. Substituting those cards with five identical looking cards, one could replace all of the ballots that were cast with bogus ones. Surely nobody in Maryland would try something like that. The outcome here was certain before the election. However, what about states like Ohio and New Mexico? 725 paper ballots would be much harder to swap than 5 small memory cards. In larger precincts, the cards could hold thousands of ballots, but they would be the same size.

Well, for the record, here is my answer to questions like the ones emailed by that reporter:

If we continue to use the kind of insecure DREs that were used in this election, it is only a matter of time before somebody exploits them. And the worst part is that we may never know it.