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Voting 2.0, Part 1: The Trouble With Closed Systems

By Katherine Noyes
May 23, 2008 4:00 AM PT

As the 2008 elections approach, political mudslinging on the campaign trail has become an all-too-familiar sight. No less muddy, however -- and no less central to the democratic process -- is the battle that's currently being waged over the ballot box.

Voting 2.0, Part 1: The Trouble With Closed Systems

How Americans cast their votes has become a subject of hot debate ever since the Florida debacle in the 2000 presidential election. Controversy has fired up afresh each time new analyses are released, such as those in recent months from Princeton University's Ed Felten.

Accusations have been exchanged; legal threats have been made. There seems to be no clear cure for the nation's voting woes.

Are new, improved electronic voting machines the answer? Should we return to good, old-fashioned paper? Will open source cure what ails the system? Today, views on the matter are as divergent as those on the elections themselves.

Lack of Transparency

"The biggest problem is the lack of transparency in voting technology," Felten, who is professor of computer science and public affairs and director of the center for information technology policy at Princeton, told LinuxInsider.

"This means not only that it's difficult for citizens to know the details of how their votes have been counted, but also the lack of transparency extends to Election Day," Felten explained. "You want to know not only what is the technology counting the votes, but also that on Election Day it counts them correctly."

Several examples have surfaced in recent years that suggest there is cause for concern.

Case of the Voteless Voters

In the 2006 midterm elections in Sarasota, Fla., for example, a congressional race was decided by fewer than 500 votes even as the system recorded that some 18,000 voters had left the polls without casting a vote on the question.

"We were part of the legal effort to get experts in to see what happened," Matthew Zimmerman, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), told LinuxInsider.

"From the state to the county to the technology vendors, they all moved in lock-step to prevent an analysis of the results," Zimmerman explained. "The judge took the position that you have to prove there's a problem before you can get in to see it. This is the road block we're in right now, and it's part of the main concern with 'black box' voting systems."

'Black Box' Systems

Because there are several different types of technologies available for voting, each vendor considers its own highly proprietary, fighting tooth and nail to protect it.

In recent months, however, Felten has succeeded in gaining access to some voting technology and testing its mettle, putting it through a security workout of sorts to see just how trustworthy it really is.

After discrepancies showed up in the electronic results from the New Jersey primaries on Super Tuesday, Felten's group at Princeton was asked by county clerks in the state to analyze the problem. What had happened, specifically, was that the voting machines were presenting results that didn't add up.

One Extra Vote

"At the end of the Election Day, every voting machine prints out a results tape for that machine," Felten explained. Each tape includes two sections: "One says how many votes each candidate got, and the other says how many voters voted in each party," he noted. "On roughly 60 tapes, those numbers didn't add up."

Although New Jersey has a closed primary -- meaning that voters can cast ballots only in their own registered party -- tapes showed that the Republican ballot was activated 60 times, even though a total of 61 votes were cast for Republican candidates, for example. It also said that the Democratic ballot was activated 362 times, yet a total of 361 votes were cast for Democratic candidates.

"That's something that should never happen," Felten said.

Legal Battles

Subsequent analyses found similar discrepancies -- including, in one, an across-the-board extra vote for candidate Barack Obama -- that were inconsistent with explanations from Sequoia Voting Systems, vendor of the machines.

Indeed, "there have been repeated reviews over the years, and all of them have found problems in the software," David Dill, professor of computer science at Stanford University and founder of the Verified Voting Foundation, told LinuxInsider.

Sequoia argues that the New Jersey counties' contract with it forbids them from allowing third parties to examine its technology, and it sent letters and e-mails to the counties -- as well as Felten -- to that effect. The result: the counties "decided to back off and not give us the machines to study," Felten said.

Meanwhile, however, a separate lawsuit challenging the legality of paperless voting in the New Jersey elections proceeds, and a judge has ordered that Sequoia machines be turned over to technical experts for the individual voters and groups who brought the suit, Felten pointed out. "This is likely to lead to an independent study that I hope will shed some light on the discrepancies," he said.

Hasty Decisions

Much of the problem stems from the haste with which electronic voting systems were installed following the 2000 election disaster, the EFF's Zimmerman says.

"Everyone collectively knew something needed to be done about this, and Congress gave out (US)$4 billion to fix the problem," he explained. "Part of the idea was to add technical standards and come up with a general framework for how the systems are supposed to work."

That thoughtful analysis, however, "never happened," Zimmerman asserts. "We were in a rush to come up with those machines, and a number of vendors had systems ready. But we didn't ever have that really rigorous discussion about standards."

Not Ready for Prime Time

As a result, he says, although the systems were placed "right in the middle of these very important social processes, they just weren't ready for prime time."

Today's systems "take away transparency from the process in a very real way, so that people don't know what's happening, and they have to rely on election officials and vendors that say, 'Don't worry, everything's fine,'" he explained. "People don't trust the results, yet they have to just trust in it."

Beyond that uncertainty, of course, lies the danger that entities with the wrong motives could manipulate the technology for their own ends.

Indeed, in California Secretary of State Debra Bowen's "top to bottom" review of voting systems last year, major security problems turned up that caused several technologies to be decertified or recertified conditional upon improved security.

'Very Large Conceptual Problems'

"I think everyone recognizes that if someone had bad motives, there's a very good reason to want to make sure there's no questions about whether these things work," Zimmerman concluded. "Now we have systems deployed all across the country that have very large conceptual problems and a growing movement of people who don't like having to trust government or private companies to decide how people are elected."

Proponents of the current voting technologies often assert that "you can't prove there's been a single election where a vote was lost," he added. "That's not the point. The point is that no one knows, and the systems will be unable to tell you whether someone did something bad or whether it malfunctioned. That transparency really needs to be built in."

Voting 2.0, Part 2: The Open Source Proposition


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Stronger regulations to protect consumer data definitely are needed.
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