Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Misconceptions about Electronic Voting

Failed attempts can give good things a bad name, especially when it comes to trying unknown and pioneering methods. Some of the myths that surround electronic voting come from failed trials that do not even represent the current technological advances. The UK made a messy, disastrous attempt at Internet-based voting via text message, personal computer, electronic kiosk, and even digital TV in 2003. That attempt was plagued by security issues, and faulty Internet connections rendered many kiosks useless on Election Day. However, most of the ambiguity regarding security issues has been addressed by a crucial feature: the Voter-Verified Paper Ballot (or VVPAT, Voter Verified Audit Trail). E-voting systems with paper ballots can support all needed security audits against fraud, just as older methods did, plus added efficiency and additional audits of their own. Here we discuss five common misconceptions hindering modern electronic voting systems.

1. All E-voting is Internet-based.
Most advanced e-voting systems are not Internet-based and actually don’t work on a network, which means they don’t work "connected" anywhere. Kiosks with advanced voting machines are located at secure polling places, like the one where you vote already, and transmit individually to a tabulation center. Transmission is accomplished via phone, cellular, satellite, or internet network, whichever is available at each location. Any malfunction in an individual voting machine has no effect on the others and can be identified and targeted directly.

2. The machines will have total control, and there’s no proof of my vote.
It sounds far-fetched, but represents a legitimate concern. The solution is a system of checks and audits that ensures the reliability, coherent performance, and ease-of-use of voting machines. It works because of those four little words that still reign supreme: “Voter-Verified Paper Ballot.” Voters get a printed copy of their cast ballot on watermarked paper with safety ink and a unique non-sequential printed serial code that is then deposited in a secure ballot box. A random selection of the paper ballots are checked by the identification number against computer records for accuracy. On top of that, each kiosk prints a tabulation report after the voting is closed, which is compared to the electronic totals.

3. The votes could be intercepted before getting to the tabulation center.
This is more a problem for manual systems which suffer from ballot box tampering, possible interception during transport of the votes, and miscounts. As mentioned above, modern automated systems are based on a closed system, making them impossible to hack. There is no way to get access to a modern voting machine in normal circumstances, period. And since there is a voter-verified paper ballot, the electronic tally sent to the tabulation center can be checked against the paper tally and the electronic tally at the kiosk. Further, it is virtually impossible to "intercept" thousands, even millions of encrypted transmissions that start and end unpredictably and which last but a few instants. One more thing, computer specialists can test and monitor machines selected at random on Election Day to ensure the accuracy of the system.

4. There is no way to audit or recount electronic votes.
Each voting machine (at least the voting machines from high-tech companies) has both a fixed memory and a redundant removable memory, both containing all the vote information. The kiosk summary can be compared to the results transmitted to the tabulation centers and on top of that, the paper ballots can also be recounted.

5. It’s a new system that has yet to be proven.
E-voting has already been widely used in some form or another in several countries. Modern systems have yet to become the standard for major national elections in the U.S., but no doubt they have achieved impressive success on large-scale events (see our previous post on the Philippines).
All totaled, automated electronic voting supported by a paper ballot seems to be the answer to more accurate and efficient voting. Apart from the immediate benefits (improved capability to identify and prevent fraud, faster results, and reduced costs) the increased confidence gained from a dependable and unified system might even encourage more people to vote.