Monday, July 04, 2005

Houston, we have a problem

The Houston Chronicle Clear up misinformation about electronic voting: E-votes are reliable in ways paper ballots could never be June 29, 2005

Wow, this article is some spectacular bulls--t.
The authors are Sonia Arrison and Vince Vasquez from the "Pacific Research Institute", which appears to be a charming US right-wing "think tank". So wise are they that they have produced an entire 25-page report on electronic voting Upgrading America's Ballot Box: The Rise of E-Voting">Upgrading America's Ballot Box: The Rise of E-Voting (PDF).

The report starts like this

Electronic voting has, unfortunately, moved from the realm of science and statistics to conspiracy theory by overheated partisans. Sonia Arrison and Vince Vasquez puncture the myths of the conspiracists in their paper. Even leading Democrats such as Joe Andrew, Bill Clinton’s handpicked chairman of the Democratic National Committee, have pointed out that while problems remain that demand vigilance, electronic voting aids the poor, the elderly, minorities, and is more accurate. Last year, Mr. Andrew lamented that “When it comes to electronic voting, most liberals are just plain old-fashioned nuts.”

This is my favorite quote from the body of the report With the click of a button, many Election Day errors have been innovated out of existence.

I would paraphase the report as follows With the click of keyboard keys, many electronic voting issues have been written out of existence.

The argument made is that it is easier to hack paper than electronic.
Oh, and concerns about the security of the machines can be addressed with "a simple code review".

Um, I have years of experience and training in computer science.
Code review is dauntingly difficult for any non-trivial program.

I like this too manual counts are prone to human error. Ah yes, much better to have electronic non-recounts, free from meddlesome human intervention.

Here is some distilled BS from the Houston Chronicle article.

While it is true that no system is tamper-proof, it is also true that it takes significant expertise and plotting to hack a machine, ironically making the system more secure than traditional paper ballots.

Historically, paper ballots were overly manhandled, being placed into boxes, moved around and passed through the hands of low-level poll workers to precinct supervisors and county officials. Fraud was less detectable, and more prevalent, because prescored ballots could be easily corrupted or votes altered with a simple punch through a hole, or mark of a pen. With DRE, features such as remote vote storage and a visual verification screen of voter selections are innovating these problems out of existence. America's voting system could become even healthier if other new procedures are adopted at the same time.

E-voting opponents demand a verified paper-trail backup to make sure votes are counted properly. But paper trails are meaningless if manual counts and voter verification are still prone to fraud and human error. And verified paper trails for DRE's have proven to be expensive, potentially bankrupting cash-strapped counties and eroding the efficiency of voting management. The back-up issue is serious, but there are less-Luddite solutions, such as electronic or audio verification.

The real key to making sure that the electronic back-ups are secure will be in reviewing the code that runs the machines, a simple procedure that counties should make part of the normal election-preparing process. And all indications are that the public approves of such a move. Indeed, despite the newness of the use DRE technology, public approval for electronic voting remains strong.
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