Thursday, March 5, 2020

Los Angeles County debuts its new voting system with good grade

Los Angeles County launched a new voting system during the primaries held yesterday in California. Overall, the debut of this much anticipated new system was successful. 

The vast majority of voters decided to use the new Vote Centers to cast their ballot in person. As of March 5, the county website shows a 60% of the ballots were cast using the Ballot Marking Devices deployed across the country. The remaining 40% voted by mail. 

The debut was not perfect. “There is no question that many voters faced long wait times and challenges in voting in Los Angeles County on Tuesday,” said Dean Logan, Registrar-Recorder County Clerk, referring to the issues presented with the check in process. On Election Night, Logan had explained that the poll book used to register voters created bottle necks and long lines. He clarified, though, that the voting machines worked properly. 

The Voting Solutions for All People (VSAP) took ten years in the make. It was a long process of consultation and testing that involved all stakeholders, from young voters, to politicians, academics, and above all, the disabled community. With VSAP now active, the county can put to rest the Inkavote that had been deploying since 1968.

An important feature of the VSAP is that voters can cast their vote from any of the nearly 1,000 voting centers spread across the county. Voters can simply go where it suits them. In addition, voting days were expanded to 29 to facilitate participation. For those who preferred to vote at home, mail-in-ballots were sent to every voter.

With VSAP, the county made available the innovative Interactive Sample Ballot (IBS), which is a sort of a hybrid system between online voting and traditional polling-center voting. Voters were able to preselect their preferences on their smartphones or tablets, and then go to a polling place to cast their vote. This optional voting method reduces lines at polling stations and improves voter convenience.

To protect the integrity of the votes, VSAP offered robust security mechanisms. In fact, by complying with the California voting standards, it exceeded those utilized in most other US states. 

After its debut, VSAP will be implemented across the county for the November 2020 presidential elections. With cybersecurity paranoia running high, this will be the ultimate test for VSAP.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

A new botched attempt to modernize elections in Dominican Republic

Election authorities in Dominican Republic failed once again to modernize its elections through technology. This time around the problems surfaced during the municipal elections held on February 16, 2020. 

Only four hours after polls opened, the Junta Central Electoral, the Dominican electoral body, realized that something was wrong with the voting machines. Julio Cesar Castanos, president of the Junta Central, acknowledged that nearly half of the voting machines did not work, leaving citizens unable to cast their votes. 

One day before the election, officials had been warned of a problem with the technology, yet, they thought it could be fixed. “We were warned, but not of the magnitude of the problem,” Mr. Castanos Guzman said. “They told us it was an issue that could be fixed the second the machines were installed.”

The automated voting system was deployed in 18 of the 158 municipalities and focused on cities and regions with high population density. Traditional voting was used elsewhere. 

This major mishap should not come as a surprise. In a video that leaked after the suspension of the elections, Guzman admitted that they had not done sufficient testing ahead of the election. Also, in 2016, the Junta Central Electoral failed its attempt to automate the voter authentication process. Although the electronic poll books did not work, authorities managed to complete the election that time. 

Although there are many reasons why this municipal election failed, one that cannot be overlooked is the fact that authorities dared to develop the system themselves with the help of providers that had zero election expertise. Instead of relying on expert companies and technology that is already available, they insisted on creating their own. Their lack of experience is now bare naked.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Election experts warn against RFID-based voting systems

A voting system which uses Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology to store electronic votes has been under scrutiny after election experts questioned its capacity to safeguard the integrity of election data. 

Though the voting system had been tested in a few Argentine jurisdictions, academics from around the world had not had a real chance to analyze it in detail until authorities from the Democratic Republic of Congo decided to use a similar system for the long-delayed elections of December, 2018. The decision to automate the controversial elections using an untested system drew criticism from U.S. diplomats.

According to experts from The Sentry, it is possible to manipulate the information the RFID chip contains, since the use of this unique identifier technology and radio communications give off signals that can be easily detected at distances greater than expected. Experts recommend election officials to refrain from implementing this type of technology. 

RFID technology is well known for its usefulness in tracking inventories, but its use extends to other industries, from bookstores and apparel to health and transportation. The main benefit of having RFIDs is that it allows quick communication with remote sensors. Nonetheless, however useful RFID may be for certain industries, elections are an entirely different ballgame. The capacity to allow remote sensors to read the information it contains opens the door for bad actors to hack the votes. 

An RFID-based system was ruled out in Israel in 2010 as it was considered unsafe. Researchers Yossef Oren and Avishai Wool, from the Tel-Aviv University, demonstrated that the secret of the vote was compromised with such type of systems. In their paper, they “show how the proposed system can be completely compromised using low-cost relay attacks. Our attacks allow an adversary to read out all votes already cast into the ballot box, suppress the votes of one or several voters, rewrite votes at will and even completely disqualify all votes in a single voting station. Our attacks are easy to mount, very difficult to detect, and compromise both the confidentiality and the integrity of the election system.”

The future of this technology is unknown. For now, only a few Argentine provinces have dared to use it. The elections in Congo, which led to weeks of post-election violence and political unrest, are a testament to what a poorly designed election system can do to the legitimacy of elections.