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Getting out the vote

Voter-verified paper audit trails won't save us. That was the single clearest bit of news to come out of this week's electronic voting events.

This is rather depressing, because for the last 15 years it's looked as though VVPAT (as they are euphoniously calling it) might be something everyone could compromise on.: OK, we'll let you have your electronic voting machines as long as we can have a paper backup that can be recounted in case of dispute. But no. According to Rebecca Mercuri in London this week (and others who have been following this stuff on the ground in the US), what we thought a paper trail meant is definitely not what we're getting. This is why several prominent activist organisations have come out against the Holt bill HR811, introduced into Congress this week, despite its apparent endorsement of paper trails.

I don't know about you, but when I imagined a VVPAT, what I saw in my mind's eye was something like an IBM punch card dropping individually into some kind of display where a voter would press a key to accept or reject. Instead, vendors (who hate paper trails) are providing cheap, flimsy, thermal paper in a long roll with no obvious divisions to show where individual ballots are. The paper is easily damaged, it's not clear whether it will survive the 22 months it's supposed to be stored, and the mess is not designed to ease manual recounts. Basically, this is paper that can't quite aspire to the lofty quality of a supermarket receipt.

The upshot is that yesterday you got a programme full of computer scientists saying they want to vote with pencils and paper. Joseoph Kiniry, from University College, Dublin, talked about using formal methods to create a secure system – and says he wants to vote on paper. Anne-Marie Ostveen told the story of the Dutch hacker group who bought up a couple of Nedap machines to experiment on and wound up publicly playing chess on them – and exposing their woeful insecurity – and concluded, "I want my pencil back." And so on.

The story is the same in every country. Electronic voting machines – or, more correctly, electronic ballot boxes – are proposed and brought in without public debate. Vendors promise the machines will be accurate, reliable, secure, and cheaper than existing systems. Why does anyone believe this? How can a voting computer possibly be cheaper than a piece of paper and a pencil? In fact, Jason Kitcat, a longtime activist in this area, noted that according to the Electoral Commission the cost of the 2003 pilots were astounding – in Sheffield £55 per electronic vote, and that's with suppliers waiving some charges they didn't expect either. Bear in mind, also, that the machines have an estimated life of only ten years.

Also the same: governments lack internal expertise on IT, basically because anyone who understand IT can make a lot more money in industry than in either government or the civil service.

And: everywhere vendors are secretive about the inner workings of their computers. You do not have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that privatizing democracy has serious risks.

On Tuesday, Southport LibDem MP John Pugh spoke of the present UK government's enchantment with IT. "The procurers who commission IT have a starry-eyed view of what it can do," he said. "They feel it's a very 'modern' thing." Vendors, also, can be very persuasive (I'd like to see tests on what they put in the ink in those brochures, personally). If, he said, Bill Gates were selling voting machines and came up against Tony Blair, "We would have a bill now."

Politicians are, probably, also the only class of people to whom quick counts appeal. The media, for example, ought to love slow counts that keep people glued to their TV sets, hitting the refresh button on their Web browsers, and buying newspapers throughout. Florida 2000 was a media bonanza. But it's got to be hard on the guys who can't sleep until they know whether they have a job next month.

I would propose the following principles to govern the choice of balloting systems:

- The mechanisms by which votes are counted should be transparent. Voters should be able to see that the vote they cast is the vote they intended to cast,

- Vendors should be contractually prohibited from claiming the right to keep secret their source code, the workings of their machines, or their testing procedures, and they should not be allowed to control the circumstances or personnel under which or by whom their machines are tested. (That's like letting the psychic set the controls of the million-dollar test.)

- It should always be possible to conduct a public recount of individual ballots.

Pugh made one other excellent point: paper-based voting systems are mature. "The old system was never perfect," he said, but over time "we've evolved a way of dealing with almost every conceivable problem." Agents have the right to visit every polling station and watch the count, recounts can consider every single spoiled ballot. By contrast, electronic voting presumes everything will go right.

Guys, it's a computer. Next!

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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£55 was Sheffield's estimate of the cost per-evote. But this didn't include costs they couldn't account for or track accurately. The real cost was higher.

In Stratford on Avon they reported to the Electoral Commission that each e-vote had cost £120 with paper votes costing only £1 each.

More in the Open Rights Group e-voting briefing pack: http://www.openrightsgroup.org/e-voting-main/e-voting-briefing-pack/

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