Computer voting isn't fool-proof


Lawrence M. Krauss

Anyone who was not in a coma in No vember 2000 remembers the agony caused by the now infamous butterfly ballots and hanging chads. Concerns about a possible repeat of events almost caused the California recall election to be delayed.

Following the election debacle in Florida, Congress became determined that in the next elections the winners actually would be determined by all the votes cast. Last October, they passed the Help America Vote Act in order to help states prepare for the next election. Unfortunately, the solutions being proposed, involving an assortment of computer-voting systems, may be worse than the problems they were designed t

We are used to depending on computers for almost every aspect of our lives, from governing our bank accounts to controlling our cars. So it doesn't seem highly radical to suggest computer-aided voting. That is, until you think of the possible problems.

How can you be assured after you vote that the machine actually recorded your vote? With a paper ballot, even a flawed ballot, at least there is a semi-permanent record that we can return to - and argue over, if necessary. Would you buy an airplane ticket by computer if there was no way to obtain a printed receipt of your transaction?

There already have been problems. For example, in the 2002 election, the new computer voting systems in Florida lost more than 100,000 votes due to a software error.

Voting is not like a physics experiment. We learned in Florida that even if the first attempt is flawed, no large-scale election is likely to be repeated merely to verify the result - as one would do in any good scientific measurement. Thus, you have to get it right the first time and allow some method of secure verification.

It is not surprising, therefore, that one of two Ph.D. scientists in Congress, physicist Rush Holt of New Jersey, has proposed new legislation that would require a paper record of every vote and require that all software for use in elections be verified in advance.

In spite of this, various states have indicated a willingness to go ahead with systems that experts in the field find suspect. As reported in the New York Times last month, software flaws in a popular voting machine, the Diebold Accuvote-TS machine, make it vulnerable to manipulation. More than 33,000 of these machines are used in 38 states.

In the Science Applications International Corporation report, commissioned by of Maryland (which nevertheless plans to use the Diebold machines in its next election), "several high risk vulnerabilities" were identified - even based on the assumption that the machines are isolated and not connected to the Internet. But in a March primary in California, the Diebold machines were connected to the Internet with election tallies posted on the Internet before polls closed.

It is interesting in this regard that Walden O'Dell, the CEO of Diebold, an Ohio company, was quoted in The Plain Dealer as telling Republicans in a recent fund-raising letter that he is "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year."

As we rush to install computer voting systems, we should remember the admonition of a former chief scientist at Sun Microsystems Inc., who said in a television interview following the 2000 election: "If your life depended on the measurement of a single ballot, would you prefer it be read by a machine, or examined carefully by three different human beings?"

If we are to avoid a host of articles on this page explaining how the election of 2004 might have been stolen, state governments must step back from the current headlong rush to install computer-voting systems until the necessary verification systems and security guarantees, certified by outside experts, are in place. Certainly no one wants to relive the frustration that followed the 2000 election - without any possibility of rechecking the results.

Krauss is chairman of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University.

© 2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.

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