E-Voting Undermines Public Confidence In Elections Even Without Evidence of Wrongdoing

from the conflict-of-interest dept

Are Republican operatives scheming to steal the election in Maryland this fall? Threat Level is reporting that the contract for transporting e-voting machines in the state has been contracted to a company whose president was the head of the state Republican party until 2006. I think the answer is almost certainly "no": while this certainly looks like a conflict of interest, I suspect it's no more than an honest oversight that will be quickly corrected. Still, it's troubling that we even have to worry about who transports voting machines. With ordinary paper ballots, it doesn't matter who transports them because there's nothing a moving company can do to undermine the election. But with e-voting machines, a moving company really could install malicious software that would undermine the election. And once an e-voting machines has been tampered with, there's no reliable mechanism for detecting the problem. Again, there's no evidence anything untoward has occurred in Maryland. But no matter who transports those e-voting machines, the public is being asked to take it on faith that they won't be tampered with. In a well-designed voting system, voters shouldn't have to take anyone's actions on faith. The entire process should be simple and transparent, so that anyone can observe it and verify that it was carried out correctly. The complexity and opacity of e-voting machines makes effective public scrutiny impossible, and so it's a bad idea even in the absence of specific evidence of wrongdoing.
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Filed Under: e-voting, maryland

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  1. identicon
    Dave Marney, 1 Feb 2008 @ 8:18am

    Re: The point of elections

    "So if the voters can't see the counting then there is not [any] point in holding elections!"

    This is perhaps a bit overstated. The practical reality is that any time thousands of things have to be counted, there are going to be issues of trust regardless of any counting method used.

    In the first place, each individual voter certainly doesn't want to see each individual vote counted. They will delegate that to an organization such as an Electoral Board to handle the operation. So, that's a layer of trust.

    Secondly, the local government has to select and train people to help with the vote operation itself. Those people need to be honest brokers, and not rig the system from the inside. Individual voters aren't involved in this selection or training, so, there's another layer of trust.

    Before a person can vote in the first place, they have to be officially recognized by the government. So, all the people who create the voter rolls, and maintain them, they need to be trusted, too.

    By the time we get down to the actual machine used to do the counting, one realizes that the real security of the process is based on people. Whether the method of counting is by hand, by optical scan, by software, by voice, or whatever method, people are needed to validate that the count was done properly. So, last of all, the voter needs to trust the people in the polling places, and the auditing groups that verifies those results, all the way up the line.

    All that said, I agree that having software-recorded votes is an ultimately opaque process, and that does make me uncomfortable. Doing a re-count means going back and re-verifying the checksums of each of the votes recorded to the primary and backup media, so there is some pretty good assurance that the data gets stored. However, the opaqueness doesn't let a human re-verify that the original intent was selected properly in the first place.

    I think the best answer here is to use electronic _ballot_ machines to generate dual machine- and human-readable ballots, and then automate the counting via optical scan. Such a system could be kept very honest by pulling random samples out during the vote, and running dual machine- and human-counted results.

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