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
    Rich Kulawiec, 21 Jan 2008 @ 5:01pm

    Re: Nothing a moving company can do?

    Yes, as has been pointed out many times, in many places, by many people, opportunities for attacks against the integrity of the voting process still exist even in all-paper systems.

    The difference is that -- in part because those systems are simple, in part because they've been around a long time, and in part because they involve the manipulation of physical objects rather than electrical charges -- they're much more difficult to pull off successfully.

    For example: suppose the ballots aren't delivered. Unlike voting machines, they're not expensive. They're easily replicable. Ballots from precinct A half a mile away are quite usable at precinct B. Moreover, the non-delivery of ballots at precinct A is very obvious -- one reason why such blatant tactics are rarely used.

    For another example, consider an attempt to stuff ballots by pre-marking them (say, just for one candidate in one race, not for all) while they're in transit. Since multiple election judges will see those ballots before they're issued to voters, and since voters themselves will see them, even if we grant some sloppiness among judges and some poor eyesight to voters, there is still a high probability that such a scheme will be detected. And schemes that are likely to be detected aren't viable.

    It would probably be instructive to read about the history of elections in Chicago, long-famous for all kinds of ingenious schemes -- some of which worked, some of which didn't. Consider that people who design election procedures are well aware of all of those, and have engineered the process against them. Sure, that doesn't prevent a sufficiently ingenious attack from succeeding -- but "sufficiently ingenious", at this point, equates to "extremely ingenious". (Remember, it's not enough for such a scheme to merely change the vote -- it also has to be undetectable.)

    Keep in mind as well that for such a scheme to be worth the expense and the risk, it has to have a high probability of producing the desired outcome. That means that it needs to affect a sufficiently large number of votes, which in turn means that it has to affect a sufficiently large number of sites. (Since a concentrated attack would immediately draw attention, a distributed attack is required.) This in turn requires additional resources...meaning additional people, meaning increased risk that someone will either screw up or get caught or turn out to be an informant.

    That highlights one of the major differences between computerized and paper systems: with the former, it's as easy to manipulate the results of 10,000 precincts as one. With the latter, it's much, much harder.

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