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.