THE MAGAZINE

Machine Politics

By Laura Spadanuta
Johnston says that while it would just take an extra dollar or two to provide a better lock, the change in mind-set would be more difficult to achieve. Taking such steps would require more thinking from the vendors on security and about what the lock should do. He adds that it is unlikely vendors would change something like that unless the states and jurisdictions buying the machines demanded better security.

Solutions

Localities needed a way to ensure that votes would be recorded or that attempts to alter the output could be easily detected. Rebecca Mercuri, a respected electronic voting expert, suggested the use of what she called a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT). With VVPAT, voters see a paper printout of their electronic selections before the votes are recorded. They can then verify that the designations are accurate and place the vote. If they don’t see an accurate reflection of their intended vote, they can immediately alert a polling station operative to the problem. This also provides a paper record of the vote for later reference in case something goes wrong with the vote counting or there is a contested or close election.

Many earlier DRE models did not provide for paper records of the votes that were placed. As this concept caught on, new DRE machines came out that were designed to provide paper trails; in some cases, printers and machines were retrofitted with the ability to produce a paper trail on older machines.

Eventually, however, voting experts concluded that VVPAT did not solve the problem. For starters, just as the electronic machines could be hacked and votes could be changed, the VVPAT printer could be hacked so that it would print out a different vote from what the machine recorded as placed. Additionally, many of the votes were being printed out on connected spools of paper, which were difficult to audit. The printers also created hassles for voters. Mercuri has since stated on her Web site that due to the problems with the implementation and deployment of the machines and the troubles using VVPATs in recounts, she is now opposed to the use of such systems.

Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University who has been called upon by the government to testify on the topic of electronic voting security, supported the use of VVPAT with DRE machines in 2003, but changed his mind as well, as he told Congress in testimony on the topic in 2007.

Back to the future. Ironically, the consensus seems to be that the solution may be to move back toward a paper ballot, but with some technological twists. Mercuri is among those now supporting the use of paper ballots (which can be marked using special machines for the disabled, if necessary).

Rubin concurs, stating on his blog: “The only system that I know of that achieves software independence as defined by NIST, is economically viable, and readily available is paper ballots with ballot marking machines for accessibility and precinct optical scanners for counting—coupled with random audits. That is how we should be conducting elections in the U.S.”

David Jefferson, computer scientist at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and chairman of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan secure voting nonprofit organization, says DRE machines are reaching the end of their life spans in many jurisdictions, it’s unlikely that they’ll be replaced with newer DRE machines.

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