Revolving Doors And Regulatory Capture Are Ensuring E-Voting Remains An Insecure Mess

from the we're-from-the-government-and-we're-here-to-secure-corporate-boardroom-p dept

Despite the long list of bad news generated by electronic voting machines, their market share only continues to grow. Rather than consider them the attack vectors they are, state and county legislators have decided to toss caution and paper ballots to the wind. The future is now. And it’s riddled with vulnerabilities.

Maybe there shouldn’t be a rush to digitize the democratic process, at least not while manufacturers are still shipping machines pre-loaded with security flaws and inadequate software. The push for e-voting machine deployment isn’t organic, of course. It’s an organized push that starts with the machines’ manufacturers and ends in regulatory capture.

Sue Halpern has exposed the paper trail connect voting machine manufacturers to ill-advised rollouts in her article for the New Yorker. The heaviest pushes target legislatures that make purchasing calls for the entire state. Most states allow the decision to be made at the county level, which decreases the chance the entire state will be affected by voting machine hacking or malfunctions. But in states like Georgia and Delaware, a successful pitch to the state legislature can mean hundreds of millions of dollars in sales.

The pay-for-play begins in the usual way: paid junkets that take state advisory boards to major cities for the usual wine/dine/schmooze-fests with all expenses paid. An investigation by McClatchy showed the Governor Brian Kemp’s chief of staff, David Dove, attended an event held by voting machine manufacturer ES&S (Election Systems & Software) — timed impeccably to capture the state’s $100 million voting machine market. To the surprise of no one, the state’s election commission decided to award ES&S this contract. But it had to do so over the voices of non-purchased stakeholders who saw nothing good in replacing one faulty e-voting machine with a similarly faulty product.

In doing so, the panel rejected the advice of computer scientists and election-integrity advocates, who consider hand-marked ballots to be the “most reliable record of voter intent,” and also the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which recommended that all states adopt paper ballots and conduct post-election audits.

This continued the proud Georgia tradition of voting machine vendor cross-pollination in the state legislature, which kicked off almost a two decades ago. In 2002, Diebold secured a $54 million contract to provide the state with voting machines. Diebold’s lobbyist was a former Georgia state official. When problems developed, ES&S stepped in, killing off legislation addressing election integrity issues and capturing a very key demographic.

In 2006, a bill requiring a verifiable paper record of each ballot, introduced in the Georgia legislature at the urging of election-integrity advocates, failed after the state’s elections director, Kathy Rogers, opposed it. Rogers, of course, later went to work for E.S. & S.

Another legislator took an extended trip through the lawmaker/lobbyist revolving door. Charles Harper went from sod farmer to state rep to lobbyist for ES&S before ending up as the deputy chief of staff in Governor Brian Kemp’s office. Brian Kemp, of course, spent the last election hastily patching voting machine vulnerabilities following the exposure of flaws, blaming the Democratic Party for the alleged hack, doxxing absentee voters, and, finally, overseeing voting integrity operations of an election he participated in.

Congress has tried to fix this problem… multiple times. It opened this year’s session with a 571-page bill full of reforms and paper ballot mandates. The problem is previous attempts to install these reforms have failed after receiving pushback from state officials. Voting machine vendors are focusing on states and counties, where the decisions (and purchases) are made. And it’s working.

Last year, the Democratic congressman Bennie Thompson, of Mississippi, proposed the Election Security Act; a year before, the Republican Mark Meadows, the chair of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, introduced the Paper Act, which was endorsed by the former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and by Grover Norquist, the president of the conservative organization Americans for Tax Reform. The Senate’s attempt to reform election practices, last year’s Secure Elections Act, had bipartisan support, too, but was killed by the White House before it got out of committee.

You can’t remove money from politics and you can’t banish lobbyists from petitioning on the behalf of the causes and corporations they represent. But you can oust politicians who prefer corporations to constituents. Changes can be made and it all starts with those who serve their own interests rather than the public’s. Shining a light on regulatory capture is the first step.

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Comments on “Revolving Doors And Regulatory Capture Are Ensuring E-Voting Remains An Insecure Mess”

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Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

When will people learn? For all its flaws analogue ballots have the advantage that ordinary everyday citizens can observe the voting and counting process and verify that everything has proceeded as it should.

However, with a voting machine the only person who can verify that the ballots have been properly counted will be one of a highly and specifically educated minority – who in order to ensure the machines proper function will also be able to influence the count.

What could possibly go wrong?

Ninja (profile) says:

You can control both money and lobbying better. Politicians should display their contributors in their clothes like Nascar racers. You know, transparency. A lot of it. And legislators that are ‘sponsored’ by a telco should be barred from voting on stuff that regulates telcos. And they should be prohibited from taking jobs in the sectors that sponsored them for at least the equivalent of 2 terms (8 years) after they leave public life. This should extend to public servants (ie: work in the FCC? no job on telcos for you for 8 years after you leave).

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"You can control both money and lobbying better. Politicians should display their contributors in their clothes like Nascar racers. You know, transparency. A lot of it."

Would be nice but…in this case it’s almost like being on the other side of the copyright debate. We can’t control who gets to give money or to whom without putting much of the democratic process or concept of fiscal ownership in jeopardy.

At the end I’d say we’re in a dead end when it comes to controlling campaign contributions and are instead left having to rely on the critical eye of the voting citizenry to pick out the best candidate despite fraudulent ads for the worst sock puppets being on every channel.

That’s worked out so well until now, after all. /s

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Would be nice but…in this case it’s almost like being on the other side of the copyright debate. We can’t control who gets to give money or to whom without putting much of the democratic process or concept of fiscal ownership in jeopardy.

Why not? Plenty of other successful democracies do it, and they have less corruption (and less obnoxious political advertisements bombarding everyone!) than we do. The USA is very much an outlier in this regard, with Citizens United and the like placing us waaaaaaaaaaay out on the extreme fringe.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"Why not? Plenty of other successful democracies do it, and they have less corruption (and less obnoxious political advertisements bombarding everyone!) than we do."

Sweden, where I live, would be a prime example of one of these "less corrupt" democracies.
We just finished building a hospital which turned out to be the 13th most expensive building in the world, at over 8 billion dollars in cost, which has mainly been gainful to vested interests heavily connected to the politicians on all sides pushing for it, and which doesn’t actually, work.

All pushed for by political parties who didn’t have nor need private campaign funding because it’s all tax funded or in the personal finances of the parties in question. And one guess as to how well that works out in the end.

I’ll grant you that it’s better – to use a highly relative term – to obstruct private money from purchasing a campaign, but when you eliminate hard cash from the equation entirely what takes its place as the chosen currency of corruption is favors and mutual backscratching instead. Harder to trace and prove but just as harmful.

Politics is a dirty game, kept that way by the fact that successful politicians need to learn to compromise away ideals and common sense alike. As long as politicians are human it’ll remain that way, leaving as only real lever of real influence the voters ability to retain critical thinking in the face of a lying, yet charismatic asshole in a suit.

We can’t "fix" democracy to a point where the system won’t actively assist the unscrupulous and system-savvy arsehole in his assorted acts of douchebaggery. We hit a point of diminishing returns fast, where further attempts at fixing things mean we must break down those parts of society which still work. And that leaves us changing minor things here and there in order to make it just a bit harder, to less effect each time.

I agree that the political ads are annoying but let’s face it – as long as the citizenry is dumb enough to fall for the normal political ad then it won’t matter how the election is run because you’ll end up with whatever clown was found most entertaining by the gullible and the naíve.

Trump supporters kept saying that having a billionaire run the US like it was a company was a good idea, while somehow failing to connect that to most of them knowing full well to what extent a company will sacrifice employees and human values if that will boost revenue a fraction of a percent.
DA’s and judges have been elected over attack ads where a banjo-playing folksy cowboy ripoff claims their opposition actively assists murderers and rapists. Governors have been elected for being action stars in movies.

You can’t make a system which saves a nation for the voters being idiots. And that goes worldwide. It’s just more visible in the US.

Anonymous Hero says:

At a minimum, voting machine software should be free and open source.

The ultimate goal (as I see it) is to be able to vote online through a govt-hosted website (would also have to be free and open source).

This will do away with long lines and provide flexibility so people can vote at their own leisure (would still need physical machines for people w/o internet connection). There would still be security vulnerabilities like DoS, but there’s already open source software to ensure confidentiality, integrity, and authenticity, so ideally we could do away with the paper trail, perhaps by keeping backups of the votes at the district level up to the state level (federal level doesn’t matter since we don’t vote for presidents, the electoral college does).

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Voting machines should do exactly one thing:

Generate a PAPER ballot, clearly marked.

Now it doesn’t matter if this machine is open source. The voter can see the ballot and that it is correctly marked.

(Like at my precinct . . .) that ballot is then inserted into a counting machine that shows the total count of all votes, and you see that number go up by one as the ballot passes the scanner, in clear view, and falls into a ballot box.

These paper ballots could be manually recounted should the need occur. Or they could be re-counted by different machines to speed things up. But ultimately the clearly marked paper ballot is what is counted. The machine counts the same markings on the ballot that a human sees to indicate their vote.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

…and here we have the point where we can state "Up to here and no further". Bravo.

As you describe, the vote isn’t an act where efficiency counts for much. It’s an act where the main issue of importance is that every last citizen capable of casting a ballot is able to verify where that ballot was cast and that they were all counted without bias.

I’m assuming most politicians should know, at the very least, the basic criteria necessary for democracy so why so many of them are enamored in technology to obscure the actual voting process makes me wonder about their motivation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The ultimate goal (as I see it) is to be able to vote online through a govt-hosted website (would also have to be free and open source).

That wouldn’t be just an opportunity for fraud. That would be the ultimate enabling of every kind of voting abuse.

Even paper absentee ballots in current elections are beyond problematic: vote farmers sign up whole neighborhoods for absentee ballots, follow the postman down the street on election day, and vote the whole neighborhood.

The ideal would be to get everyone in the neighborhood in a room, have each one be seen by all the others to take a physical ballot into the booth alone and uncoerced, and have several of their neighborhood be seen by all the rest to count the ballots, then see the ballots sealed for archiving.

Anything else is open to the wardheeling thugs bursting into homes saying, "log in now! and vote for Mayor McCrook, or we kill your child/pet/TV. And if you mention this to anyone, we’ll be back." Or, alternatively, the same kind of vote-counting shenanigans that have been engaged in professionally for years in Chicago, and attempted so blatantly but amateurishly in Miami (except using hi-tech electronics instead of paper-shifting).

In voting, there’s a tradeoff between convenience and security (which makes it different from–nothing at all.) Some deviations from the security of the "everyone watch your neighbors vote, everyone watch their votes counted" model are tolerated (and perhaps ought to be tolerated) for the sake of people who can’t stand there all day (people on military service or physically unable to travel). But the proper goal of technology is not to make dangerously-insecure processes the norm, but to enable more people to participate in the secure process.

DannyB (profile) says:

Gerrymandering is going away

Because it is getting difficult to impossible to gerrymander districts to ensure that elections go they way they are supposed to, let me propose a better, more uniform design for voting systems.

Paperless voting.

You to go the polling place. In the voting booth, you vote electronically on a touch screen. Your vote is instantly tallied in the cloud so that up to date nationwide vote totals are available for all to see, including Vladimir. A voting receipt is printed to prove you have voted.

Your voting receipt has a URL to a page showing YOUR ballot. Each URL contains the unique sequential voting sequence number of the order of all voters in the nation who voted. While you are visiting your online ballot page, you can change your vote if you so wish.

What could possibly go wrong?

Such a design wold offer voting convenience unlike any in our history.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Gerrymandering is going away

Because it is getting difficult to impossible to gerrymander districts to ensure that elections go they way they are supposed to

I mean, I get that your whole post is sarcastic, but…you know gerrymandering’s working just as intended in places like Wisconsin, right? Republicans won 49% of the vote and 63% of the seats.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Gerrymandering is going away

"What could possibly go wrong?"


The cloud-based server runs a script which will provide you a view that you voted for Herp Derp and provides a URL which will show you that yes sirree, you indeed voted Herp Derp. You may at this page cleave to ole Herp or change it to Mary Sue, for instance.

Meanwhile under the hood no matter what the URL and view screen showed you your vote is actually counted against Tricky Dick who then proceeds to win with a 5% margin.

The only people capable of troubleshooting whether your vote actually went to anything other than what the splash screen suggests would be people with sufficiently deep access to actually alter the result and therefore must be kept a mile away from the running process.

Vladimir, meanwhile, drops a gagging bagful of rubles into the christmas stockings of his favourite malware writers and proceeds to give off a deep and merry "Ho ho ho" to the news about the US election results. Again…

Anonymous Coward says:

It makes no sense to have Electronic Voting machines. These things are pulled out 1 time a year or every other year for 1 day and then thrown back into storage. It takes up a lot of space. It costs a ton of money, and the hardware is outdated pretty fast. Even if/when they do spit out a paper receipt of each person, can you really trust that?

I’m for keeping it simple. I know here in this screwed up state of California. Had had E-VOting for 1 time only where I live and never saw it again after that 1 time. We do what we did in school taking tests where you filled in bubbles using a #2 pencil. So who doesn’t know how to do that? The Ballets are the same way, though it’s not just A,B,C,D and fill it, it has all the info on the page also. You can’t get confused or mixed up. You are using a PEN, not a Pencil to fill in the bubbles. There’s no hanging chad. When you are done, you slip it into the single machine slot that scans and counts the votes I guess. That paper you filled out is inside the machine locked up. So you have the Orignal Ballet/Paper trail. Keep it simple!!! Electronic voting machines need to die off.

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