Friday, July 29, 2005

Computer experts testify 21 June 2005 before the Senate on the perils of paperless voting

My recent testimony before the Mesa County Commissioners regarding vote centers was in part derived from recognized experts in the field of electronic voting. I’ve read articles, papers and testimony by Professor Ted Selker of the MIT Media Lab’s Caltech/MIT Voter Technology Project. Yes, that’s MIT as in Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I’ve read extensively from the works of Professor David L. Dill of Stanford University’s Department of Computer Science.

These men are not ignorant bumpkins with an aversion to technology, and they are not enthused by the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (which after all is a trail, an after-the-fact receipt). A receipt shows what has been done with your vote by the invisible, anonymous scribe in the “black box”—not what is about to be done to your vote.

“The basic problem of e-voting can be understood without an in-depth knowledge of computer technology. Here is a helpful analogy: Suppose voters dictated their votes, privately and anonymously, to human scribes, and that the voters were prevented from inspecting the work of the scribes. Few would accept such a system, on simple common-sense grounds. Obviously, the scribes could accidentally or intentionally mis-record the votes with no consequences. Without accountability, a system is simply not trustworthy, whether or not computers are involved. You don't need a Ph.D. in computer science to understand the basic problem with computerized voting. Computer systems are so complex that no one really knows what goes on inside them. We don't know how to find all the errors in a computer system; we don't know how to make sure that a system is secure or that it hasn't been corrupted (possibly even by its designers); and we don't know how to ensure that the systems in use are running the software they are supposed to be running. Technologists have not been able to solve these problems even with measures that are far more sophisticated (and costly) than those used in the design and certification of voting equipment.

There is strong agreement among computer technologists that what I just said is true. For example, the Association for Computing Machinery, the largest professional organization of computer technologists, adopted a position against paperless electronic voting after an internal poll showed that 95 percent of their membership agreed with the position. What can we do about this problem? Returning to the analogy with the scribe, that system can be made trustworthy by having the voter fill out his own ballot or by allowing each voter to check the ballot filled out by the scribe. We can have a trustworthy voting system if, instead of a futile effort to ensure that the voting equipment is error-free by design, we empower each voter to verify that his vote has been accurately recorded. In other words, we need voter-verified paper ballots. The call for paper ballots is not based on nostalgia. Paper has specific properties, as a technology, that we don’t know how to replicate in electronic media. For example, most voters can verify the contents of a paper ballot without computer mediation; paper can be written indelibly; and the procedures for handling critical paper documents are easily understood by ordinary poll workers and voters. In addition, electronic ballot marking devices now exist to enable voters with disabilities to mark and verify optical scan ballots. Paper is not a magical solution to our election problems, but, at least, understandable procedures exist for ensuring the accuracy of an election conducted with paper ballots. In particular, the ballots must be protected, and the processes for storing, transporting, handling, and counting them must transparent. Ideally, members of the public and non-governmental organizations as well as political party representatives should be able to observe all of the steps of an election, including machine testing, polling place operations, counting of votes, auditing and recounting.”—Professor David Dill’s testimony.

Professor Selker calls electronic voting a danger to democracy. He even conducted a study in which a known set of errors were inserted into a mock election. The results demonstrated that most voters will not even recognize an error on the paper printout. Some test subjects even denied that an error had been printed, even though the error was of course part of the known set of errors used for the study.

One wonders at the objectives, motives and yes competence of elected officials who forge ahead with technology that will destroy the transparency of elections by reducing the right to vote to a process that takes place inside a black box, where it cannot be observed by the citizen casting the ballot.

Cindy L. Espinoza
264 East Lynwood Street
Grand Junction CO 81503
TEL/FAX 970-245-1196 or 866-865-5780

Thomas Paine in 1777 - The Crisis, no. 4

"Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigues of supporting it."