Sunday, September 24, 2006

Steal This Election?

Voting in Maryland's recent primary election was a mess. My sense is that the mess was caused primarily by a lack of trained personnel. That is, the problems were not rooted in any deliberate attempt to subvert the election. Rather, the local boards of election did not perform their jobs competently and did not have sufficient competent voting judges at the polling places.

However, there still remains an issue whether electronic voting machines can be intentionally rigged to change the election results. The Center for Information Technology Policy of Princeton University has studied the Diebold AccuVote-TS Voting Machine, the machine used in Maryland. The Center has produced the following video summary:

Needless to say, Diebold has taken issue with the study. The authors of the study have issued a point by point response to Diebold's defense. In another posting, one of the study's authors had this additional comment:
[O]ne of the lessons of our study is that even one dishonest election worker can cause big trouble. So the relevant question is not whether the average election worker is honest, but whether a would-be villain can get a job as an election worker.

The answer to that question is almost certainly "yes." Election workers are in short supply in most places, so any competent adult who volunteers is likely to get the job. And every election worker I've talked to has had private access to a voting machine for more than a minute — enough time to inject the kind of vote-stealing software we demonstrated.

As always with computer security, we don't just worry that things will go wrong on their own. What really vexes us is that our adversary is trying to make things go wrong. If a single election worker can corrupt an elections, then the bad guys will become election workers. Without the necessary safeguards, the many honest election workers won't be able to stop them.
In the 2000 presidential election, because of the so-called "butterfly ballots," 2000 to 2400 of the Buchanan votes were almost surely Gore supporters who mistakenly punched their ballot for Buchanan. Adding these votes to Al Gore's totals would have changed the outcome of the election. Ironically, it was the 2000 debacle that has lead to the accelerated development and use of electronic voting machines.

I happen to believe that some form of electronic voting is necessary. However, I also believe that any system of electronic voting must have sufficient redundancy and safeguards built in to assure that elections are not corrupted. I am less than confident that the current Diebold machines are up to the task.

Hat Tip: Robert Ferraro.

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