Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A serious look at audits of e-voting equipment

Source: Google Images
Citizens want to believe that the practices in place for electing officials into government office are fair and true. After all, what is the point of having a democracy if a voting system can be easily tampered and hacked by outside forces, completely skewing the results of elections? To this end, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration recently recommended in its January 2014 report that “audits of voting equipment must be conducted after each election, as part of a comprehensive audit program, and that data concerning machine performance must be publicly disclosed in a common data format.”

As more and more jurisdictions begin to adopt electronic voting machines, particularly direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines that may or may not have a voter-verifiable paper trail for audits, it is becoming a big concern for those seeking more transparency in election administration. The audit trail for the ballots themselves is of great importance, as it provides a means of checking election results in the case of a recount, but there's more to this conundrum.

Indeed, we've seen how electoral audits in the United States are good, but they're not perfect. The Presidential Commission on Election Administration particularly encourages the use of post-election audits to check on the performance of voting technology. The Commission recommends that the election administrations in the various districts audit the voting machines after each election to “ensure both that the vote totals match the votes cast and that any problems related to machinery are reported and resolved.” However, this may be only part of the solution.

If a problem with the voting machines was discovered during the post-election audit, what could they do to rectify the situation? If the security of the voting infrastructure was compromised, what can do then? Instead, a better approach would be the inclusion of pre-electoral audits to ensure the performance and security of the voting apparatus. This way, as post-election audits can detect fraud after it has already happened, pre-election audits can prevent them from happening in the first place.

This approach is gaining steam around the world. Venezuela, a nation that has automated its entire electoral process, took this exact approach, performing a robust set of pre-election audits leading up to the actual voting day. The audits inspected the voting machine during its configuration phase, for instance, as well as the e-voting software, the electoral infrastructure, the biometric authentication system used to verify the identity of voters, the data transmission network, the tallying of the ballots, and the closure of the election, among other aspects. This comprehensive check throughout the election stages helped to provide the transparency citizens need.

The US Presidential Commission did not go into that level of detail with its recommendation, but it does indicate the importance of performing different types of audits for different functions. It endorses the need to audit the ballots cast to ensure the correct result is reported, but also the importance of auditing the performance of the voting technology itself.

The results of the pre- and post-election audits must also be publicized and open to public scrutiny. This would allow other jurisdictions to learn from the problems experienced by other districts, encouraging a more secure, more reliable, more problem-free and more robust voting system for all.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Scytl in Ecuador: how to jeopardize an entire election

A simulation on the February elections
was carried out last February 9 in Quito
using the Scytl system.  (Image: Ecuador Times)
On April 18 the president of Ecuador's National Electoral Council (CNE for its Spanish acronym), Domingo Paredes, announced a series of legal actions to be taken against Scytl, a digital voting services company, for failing to meet their contractual obligations during the February 23 Sectional Elections.

More specifically, Paredes proclaimed the unilateral termination of the contract and the immediate collection of the bank guarantee, further, he demanded the return of advance payments made, and officially declared that Scytl had not met the requirements of the contract.

This new chapter of the February 23 Sectional Elections has prompted a round of mutual accusations between the parts –the National Electoral Council of Ecuador (CNE) and Scytl-, as neither one wants to take the blame for the egregious delay of the national results. 

Among other things, the Barcelona-based company had been hired to process the tallying of the votes so that results could be announced within 72 hours after closing. However, it actually took nearly a month to complete the task of processing the votes and arriving at official results. Only Azuay and Santo Domingo de Ts├íchilas, the two provinces with automated voting for which Scytl did not offer its tallying system, announced results on Election Day. 

Besides the legal disputes that are likely to evolve from the public positions both parties are taking, one simple, yet very important question, needs to be asked: Why didn't Scytl warn this was going to happen?

Good practices in the Electronic Voting industry require that a series of tests and pilots be carried before any election occurs. In-house alpha, beta, and “real-world” pilot testing are crucial in any mission critical project of this kind.

Testing is the only way to guarantee minimal disruption in the flow of the process, and to prove that the applications logic and accompanying infrastructure are in working order. 

There are two possible answers to the question. Either the test runs were poorly planned, so they did not raise the necessary flags to avoid the catastrophe; or the tests did in fact serve to alert the problems ahead, but no adequate or sufficient action was taken. Time will tell, as the two parts explain their viewpoints. 

In a February 15th pilot, a group of technicians pointed out some weaknesses possibly leading to failures of the system. In an article published by Hoy, Enrique Mafla -Ecuadorian computer expert- pointed out that issues with the source code and the awarding system had been detected before E-day. He signaled Scytl as responsible for them. 

Fabián Auz, informatics delegate from SUMA, also claimed there had been poor planning of the technical audits prior to the election, and that several problems had been spotted.

During the days that followed Election Day, and while the entire nation was demanding results, Scytl representatives acknowledged problems with their application. However, they are now fighting back claiming their system performed as planned, that it provided timely results, and that they met all contractual obligations.

It is hard to judge at this point who will finally be blamed for jeopardizing the election. Every effort needs to be made to ensure zero delays occur. But a one-month delay is not acceptable. Not in the age of instant communications, not with the advanced election technology now available in the market.

Friday, April 18, 2014

US presidential commission recommends online voter registration

Source: Google Images
Much of what we do these days is on the Internet. We channel much of our communication online, using channels like social media, instant messengers and e-mail. We manage our finances with various online tools and we take care of our money with online banking. Depending on the jurisdiction where you live, you might also be able to file your income tax through a web portal. Why is it, then, that some governments still insist that voters have to register in person when an online voter registration system would be far more efficient and potentially far more effective in improving overall voter turnout?

In January of this year, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration in the United States of America put together a report called The American Voting Experience where it outlined some of its key findings for the electoral process in the country. It also provided a number of key recommendations that could improve how Americans vote in future elections, like reducing wait times at polling places.

The Commission calls to improve the accuracy of registration rolls to expand access, prevent fraud and reduce administrative costs. One of the key recommendations offered by the Commission to achieve these goals is through the modernization of the registration process, particularly when it comes to the “continued expansion of online voter registration.”

A number of online registration tools are already provided through the website of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration and these are being recommended to the states to adopt for their own online registration. Voters can then go through the process from the convenience of their homes, going through the secure web portal to register for upcoming elections. This saves a lot of time for administration, as all of the necessary fields can already populate the database without the need for a data entry clerk. This has been a problem for many states, as the traditional record keeping system still utilizes “outdated paper-based registration systems requiring data entry by government employees.”

The central database of voters can then be more easily shared between other state agencies and potentially outside groups. When a voter moves to a different residence, he can update the address himself through the online portal to keep everything up to date. This has otherwise been a problem for the paper-based system, which has led to much incorrect information in the records.

Improved voter registration is the first step toward improving overall voter turnout, which is absolutely crucial to the democratic process. Online voter registration can increase overall numbers, as evidenced in Arizona where registration rates “increased from 29 percent to 53 percent among voters aged 18 to 24 with the adoption of an online system.” Voters with disabilities have improved access too, particularly those with limited mobility.

What's more, the lineups on Election Day can be shortened, as voters would have already registered online ahead of time and clerks will have easier access to the database. Security is also improved, as “clean” rolls minimize the vulnerability to fraud. Online voter registration offers a plethora of advantages and jurisdictions across the country and around the world should give it some serious consideration. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

How to encourage innovation with e-voting technology

Source: Google Images
Technology continues to evolve and develop at a breakneck pace, quickly generating new products and services that far surpass the capabilities of previous generations. The smartphone that most people carry around with them today is more powerful than full desktop computers from only a few years ago. As such, it is of paramount importance that all facets of government similarly keep up with this quickened pace of advancement and one area in particular where this need is pressing is with electronic voting technology.

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration (EAC) produced a lengthy report titled The American VotingExperience in January 2014 where it outlined several recommendations that it had for electoral reform in the country moving forward. In its investigation into the voting process in the United States, the Commission was particularly concerned with “the impending crisis in voting technology.” Indeed, many of the voting machines currently deployed across the nation are at least a decade old. Many of these machines on the market fail to “meet the current needs of election administrators.”

A large part of this struggle has to do with the bureaucratic red tape involved with the standard-setting and certification process for voting machines. This process has become far too cumbersome, stagnating any innovation in the space and acting as a significant barrier to entry for new companies who wish to develop newer and better e-voting machines that utilize better technology and can offer many benefits.

The current crop of voting machines in the United States came about from the Help America Vote Act of 2003, transitioning the country away from punch card ballots and mechanical lever machines and toward Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) and optical scan machines. This aided in efficiency and reliability, but even these machines are now outdated.

The current certification process for new electronic voting machines is too costly and too time-consuming. As a result, the different jurisdictions across the United States have neither the time nor the money to invest in new machines. The resources simply are not there and a reformation of this process is absolutely warranted, as recommended by the Commission.

Yes, a certification process is still needed, as the e-voting machines need to adhere to certain standards for the elections that they will manage. They still need to be reliable. They still need to be secure. There needs to be measures in place to make the voting fair and unbiased in its presentation, as well as protecting the machines against hacking or tampering. However, a reformation of the process needs to open up the market for e-voting machines to companies beyond the incumbents. The certification process needs to be faster and less costly.

To this end, the Commission recommended that the setting of such standards and the management of the certification process should not be dependent on the EAC itself. Instead, it says that “either some other body within or apart from the EAC must be in charge... or the states should adapt their regulations such that federal approval is unnecessary.” By streamlining the process, greater competition is encouraged among the e-voting machine vendors and this will help to encourage better and faster innovation in the industry.

One technology that the EAC recognizes could have a significant impact on the voting experience is the ability for voters to “pre-fill” their sample ballots at home. This will speed up the voting process, thus reducing long lines and improving the overall efficiency of the electoral process. Even the use of an adapted off-the-shelf device like a tablet or computer can be worth exploring, as long as proper precautions are taken to ensure its security.

A better, more efficient, and more secure electronic voting experience can be enjoyed by voters, administrations and governments alike. It's time to revamp the certification process for these machines and move forward.