Building a better voting machine
- By Matt Leonard
- Oct 20, 2016
A prototype election system in Los Angeles County and one proposed by Travis County, Texas, were identified as two of the potentially safest systems in the county at an Oct. 19 panel on election security.
After the issues resulting from “hanging chads” on punch-card ballots in the 2000 presidential election, the federal government made an effort to help states upgrade their voting machines. In 2002 President George W. Bush signed the “Help America Vote Act,” which authorized billions in federal funds for to upgrade election systems and set new election standards.
But that infusion was an anomaly, according to Jeremy Epstein, a senior computer scientist with SRI International. Funding for voting machine upgrades has long been an issue for states – and it still is. No one runs on a platform of upgrading voting infrastructure, he said.
That means the responsibility to fund new voting technology has fallen to the local level.
“The United States is the only country that seems to think [municipalities] can buy voting machines on the free market and that it’s going to work out,” the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Chief Technologist Joseph Hall said in an Oct. 19 panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council. Other nations post specifications, request bids and then buy systems as a country, he said. “We’re huge, and our federal government can’t tell our states what to do.”
It’s easy to see why localities would want to look beyond what the private sector has offered, because the available options have had their fair share of problems. Virginia was using a machine with a Wi-Fi connection that has been described as the “worst in the world.” In Ohio, a glitch in electronic voting machines in 2004 resulted in George Bush getting more than 3,000 votes in an area with only 800 registered voters.
Municipalities are “so fed up with what’s on the market that they’re going to build their own,” Hall said.
The Los Angeles ballot-marking device, which currently has five prototypes and millions in investment, uses a stylus and touch screen. Voters record their vote, which is then printed onto a piece of paper and placed in a ballot box, but not recorded or stored by the system itself. The votes in the ballot box would then be electronically scanned. The process requires tight control over the chain of custody, Hall said.
The system will also have a dual-chip trusted computer architecture, which will make it harder for unauthorized users to make changes using a thumb-drive attack.
The proposed Travis County system is similar to what Los Angeles County has been developing, according to Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, who described it as “the best of both worlds.” It provides the ease of use for people with disabilities that an electronic system affords, and the record-keeping of a paper system, she said.
Just how this record would be used is something that hasn't been made clear, however. Different localities have different rules, panelists pointed out.
“If you’re going to get a paper record you want to do something with it,” Hall said. California implemented one of the first paper ballot laws, he noted. Officials randomly selected precincts from around the state and counted the paper ballots to ensure the totals matched what was recorded by the machines.
Risk-limiting audits are a newer standard being used by some locations, Hall continued. This process creates “a statistical way of counting paper [ballots] that ensures that you have a strong probability of catching a misstated outcome.”
Nevertheless, Epstein is excited about the possibilities for voting machine technology, especially the system in Los Angeles County. “It is the most secure voting system I have seen,” he said.
Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.