In search of the e-voting paper trail

'On the spectrum of terrible to very good, we are sitting at terrible.'

'Johns Hopkins' Aviel D. Rubin

Electronic voting machines have worked just fine for hundreds of elections in California, Georgia, and Maryland, the House Administration committee heard this month, but that is no guarantee of future performance.

Aviel D. Rubin, professor of computer science at John Hopkins University, said that closer scrutiny of e-voting technology is needed.

'We cannot achieve perfectly secure systems, such things do not exist,' Rubin told the committee. 'On the spectrum of terrible to very good, we are sitting at terrible.'

It is possible to make paperless machines secure enough, said Tadayoshi Kohno, a computer security expert from the University of California at San Diego, 'but we don't have those machines today and can't have them by November.'

Britain J. Williams, professor emeritus of computer science and IT at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, said he worked with the Georgia Elections Division to make the 2002 switch to direct-recording electronic voting machines.

'We don't believe we are in imminent danger in Georgia,' he said. 'A DRE voting system is one of the simplest computer applications you could imagine. It just adds by one.' More secure machines could be developed, he said, but 'we have to deal in the short term with what we have on the shelf right now.'

As for voter-verified paper trails, chairman Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) said he does not support any legislation to require states to produce paper receipts.

DRE voting, which typically records votes on touch-screen computers, has been in use for 25 years. After Florida's presidential election fiasco in 2000, many states began replacing mechanical and paper balloting with DRE equipment. The 2002 Help America Vote Act provided $650 million for states to fund the switch. The act mandates certification of the hardware and software.

Williams said Georgia's uncounted-vote rate in 2000 was 3.5 percent, higher than in Florida's disputed election. It fell to 0.87 percent in 2002 with the touch-screen equipment.

But California's secretary of state in April decertified touch-screen machines until they could produce a paper trail. The House committee hearing on July 7 came one day after a federal judge upheld the decertification.

The California decision makes it unlikely that DRE machines, used by an estimated 43 percent of voters in the state's March elections, can serve in November.

After an investigation of the March election problems, California secretary of state Kevin Shelley ruled that 'DRE technology may not yet be stable, reliable and secure enough to use in the absence of an accessible, voter-verified paper trail.'

Independence

One advantage of DRE voting is greater independence for disabled persons, who often can vote without assistance. The American Association of People with Disabilities and several disabled individuals challenged the California decision in court, arguing that decertification violated their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Help America Vote Act. They sought a temporary restraining order against the secretary of state's action.

Judge Florence-Marie Cooper of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California denied the motion, saying the defendants had not shown they were likely to prevail in trial or suffer irreparable harm.

The judge concluded that although the secretary of state's action would have an impact on voters, 'the decision to suspend use of DREs pending improvement in their reliability is certainly a rational one, designed to protect the voting rights of the state's citizens.'

Michael I. Shamos, of Carnegie Mellon University's computer science school in Pittsburgh, told the House committee he considers electronic voting superior to paper, but not all DRE machines are reliable.

'This country has no systematic process for pinpointing and keeping these machines out of the polls,' Shamos said. 'All the problems associated with DRE machines have solutions. None of these solutions requiresa paper trail.'

California's Sacramento County experimented in 2002 with paper audit trails. Machines used to cast 1,612 ballots were outfitted with printers that let each voter check the choices on paper.

'The reaction to the equipment was mostly positive,' county registrar Jill Lavine told the committee, but minor problems cropped up. There were paper jams, and printed copy was produced only after a vote was cast, so the voter could not correct any mistakes.

'A voter-verified paper audit trail may increase confidence in the electronic ballot,' Lavine told the committee, but it is not without flaws.

Rubin proposed simply using the existing machines to print out paper ballots with
the votes on them.

'I am not fundamentally against e-voting,' Rubin said. 'Right now I think computers are not ready for this responsibility. The way to improve on Florida is to develop better paper ballots.'

Witnesses pointed out that with only three months to go before the general election, many people will vote on machines that could be unsecure. How to ensure the most accurate results?

'Test, test, test,' Shamos said. 'Train, train, train.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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