• United States



by Sandy Kendall

Would You Vote for E-Voting?

Jan 05, 20044 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security

I vote in a small town, and when I go to the polls, I am greeted by several locally esteemed ladies with extremely sharp pencils and a ruler. They scan the printed list of voters and their addresses by sliding the ruler down the page, aligning the two columns of information and, never mistaking a resident of 52 Main Street with a resident of 54 Main Street, they make a sharp, dark check-mark next to each person to whom they hand a ballot. Whatever the spirit of these individuals, as poll-workers they are methodical and pleasant, and they never, ever, move out of first gear.

I take my ballot to a carrel, where I can pull a short curtain and secret myself while I mark the ballot with a black marker. I put the ballot in its envelope and carry it to the ballot box near the exit. Before I get there, another set of volunteers repeats the routine with the ruler and pencil and voter lists. Then at the ballot box, an older gentleman stands and watches as I insert my ballot into a slot. We say good-day and then I go off to work and they continue until the long days voting is over and then the crew of volunteer counters comes and counts votes into the night.

Its all very 19th century, but it still works fine. Nevertheless, it will most likely be supplanted before long by something far more modern.

On Oct. 29, 2002, President Bush signed into law the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA). According to the State Dept. website:

The legislation provides $3.9 billion in federal funds to the states over the next three years to replace outdated voting machines, improve voter education and train poll workers. It also calls for first-time voters who registered by mail to provide identification when they show up at the polls. For the 2004 election, states will be required to have a computerized voter registration system and to provide provisional ballots to voters whose names do not appear on voter rolls. These will be counted once valid registration is verified.

After the debacle of the 2000 presidential election, many municipalities have wanted to update their voting equipment to eradicate the problems that physical ballots present (the imperfectly punched chads, the ambiguous ink marks), and they may use HAVA to do so. Businesses and individuals have, over the decades, implemented electronic systems to boost the speed and efficiency of their data processing. And what is vote-counting but a huge data processing project, complicated by the need for secrecy and security? It seems natural for local governments election divisions to adopt the same approach. But is the technology there yet? Recent news reports raise some doubts.

Last week, officials from VoteHere Inc., announced that its network had been broken into two months earlier and the FBI and Secret Service were investigating. VoteHere is a Bellevue, Washington-based software company that, according to its website, delivers advanced e-voting technology to election providers. Company officials say they probably know who the hacker was, but they arent saying much else while the investigation is ongoing. They did say, however, that the person was able to access the companys files through a known vulnerability in the networks operating system that wasnt patched with the latest security updates. VoteHere president Jim Adler has said that he thinks the hack is linked to other election company hacks. The most prominent of those was Diebold Election Systems, which told ISPs in December that someone had stolen proprietary material off one of its servers back in March.

Meanwhile several studies about the state of electronic voting technology released since the fall have shown security flaws that could lead to election fraud. One of these studies, conducted by Compuware Corp., found 57 potential security risks within software and hardware of four leading providers. This and other analyses (e.g., from The Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute and from Science Applications International Corp.) suggest that touch-screen voting machines in particular may be vulnerable to tampering by company employees, poll workers or hackers. As a result, the secretary of state of Ohioa state which had been evaluating e-voting vendors throughout the summer in preparation for replacing outdated equipmentsaid in early December, I will not place these [electronic] voting devices before Ohios voters until identified risks are corrected and system security is bolstered.

As Bush said when he signed the bill, Americans are a self-governing people, and the central commitment of self-government is free and fair elections&. The vitality of America’s democracy depends on the fairness and accuracy of America’s elections.

As the presidential primary season approaches, would you be confident in electing your next president with electronic tools? Are the benefits of e-voting worth the potential risks?