Voter Tech 101: Democracy Is What Truly Counts

How to head off the crisis in November

“It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting.” – Tom Stoppard”

The voting is supposed to get easier by 2006 when the Help America Vote Act of 2002 kicks in, and who would object to the parts of it that guarantee full accessibility to people with disabilities or without fluency in English? New Mexico is getting ready to buy a new generation of electronic touch-screen voting machines to comply.

It’s the counting that raises objections to these DRE (direct recording electronic) machines. If they’re no more secure than, say, the Internet, then democracy is in trouble. A group of New Mexicans whose spokesman is a Los Alamos computer scientist is protesting that the new DREs represent a step into technological uncertainty.

They are not alone. Apart from the alarmists exchanging theories on the Internet, a reliable report by the Congressional Research Service urges Congress to address the “emerging consensus that in general, current DREs do not adhere sufficiently to currently accepted security principles for computer systems, especially given the central importance of voting systems to the functioning of democratic government.”

Charlie Strauss of Los Alamos, who has been programming computers for 35 years, speaks for a group called Verified Voting New Mexico. He cautions the Secretary of State’s Office to slow down. A large majority of county clerks say they are not ready for new machines, he says, and, “systems already bought are not working as planned and may have to be replaced.”

He stays away from the controversies sometimes dismissed as conspiracy theory, such as the fight over Diebold Election Systems of Ohio, whose chief executive officer is a Republican contributor dedicated, as he stated in a fund-raising letter, “to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President.”

Beverly Harris, author of “Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century,” has targeted Diebold especially. In February she filed a lawsuit challenging the use of Diebold machines in California. The petition reviews technical tests by Johns Hopkins University computer scientists and by an independent firm hired by Maryland. Both found numerous flaws in Diebold security.

The testers showed how informed hackers could access the vote-counting servers in several ways by remote modems or, more quickly and directly, through the unprotected USB ports in the rear of the machines.

New Mexico has never approved Diebold, but the technical problems are the same, in form, for the manufacturers that have been approved: ES&S and Sequoia.

Strauss says his group is focusing on two chief technical problems: “unrecountable ballots and closed software made by private companies.” These have the same effect as closed meetings by governing bodies, namely, “undemocratic government and disenfranchisement.”
The group is lobbying for some form of what Strauss calls “a voter verified paper audit trail.” His preference would be a system in which voters make their choices on state-of-the-art touchscreen machines, but then print out their ballots on paper for counting by separate optical scanning machines. There are other possibilities, but he thinks two essentials for ballot security are: 1., the paper audit trail and, 2., separation of the ballot choice-making from the vote casting.

The CRS report says the separate-machines solution has the advantage that the software for vote-casting could be “open source and standardized,” meaning that anyone could check it for security problems or malfunctioning, while the ballot software could be “proprietary and more flexible,” meaning that manufacturers would be competitive and creative.

“The code used for vote casting and counting can be much simpler than that needed for the voter interface, making security potentially much easier to achieve than is currently the case with DREs, where both functions are housed within a single unit,” the CRS report says. So a busy polling place could get by with one highly secure vote-counter and several off-the-shelf ballot-makers, probably at considerable cost savings.

The CRS report is noncommittal about the paper audit trail, since there are several options for voter ballot verification, including “new electronic ways of voting.” One imaginative new way would be “encrypted” voting where the voter receives a coded paper receipt that, in various ways, could be matched later with the ballot that is part of the final tally.

The problem is that this and other new ways of voting might confuse voters, but the CRS report says voters could be taught. Strauss prefers the simplicity of paper, which after centuries of experience, “we know how to handle.”

Whatever, he says, “We need to make machines that don’t require trust.” The manager of a movie theater, for example, does not have to entrust just one person with the duty of making sure all of the audience has paid. Separate employees sell tickets and take tickets, he says.

Strauss suggests strongly that the state and counties freeze the process of buying machines to meet the federal mandates until what he calls “engineering” problems can been examined by, perhaps, an independent commission well versed in technology and removed from politics.