Friday, May 1, 2009

Why computers are bad at counting votes

Click the box … voters from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during last
November’s presidential election hope their ballots won’t be ‘erased’.
Photograph: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Wendy Grossman had an excellent article in the London Guardian which I found in tomorrow's Taipei Times. Hmm, the world is getting smaller. Anyway, Grossman does a great job pulling together some of the recent problems with electronic voting.

Guardian "It’s commonly said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Yet this is what we keep doing with electronic voting machines — find flaws and try again. It should therefore have been no surprise when, at the end of March, California’s secretary of state’s office of voting system technology assessment decertified older voting systems from Diebold’s Premier Election Solutions division. The reason: a security flaw that erased 197 votes in the Humboldt county precinct in last November’s presidential election.

Clearly, 197 votes would not have changed the national result. But the loss, which exceeds the error rate allowed under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, was only spotted because a local citizen group, the Humboldt County Election Transparency Project ( monitored the vote using a ballot-imaging scanner to create an independent record. How many votes were lost elsewhere?"

She quotes Rebecca Mercuri, a security consultant who studied voting systems for her doctoral dissertation:
“It’s nothing new. These are all security flaws that are well known in the industry. Why are they acting as if this is the first time they’ve heard this?” The audit log problems were documented in Bev Harris’s 2004 book, Black Box Voting (

Mercuri explains that election software belongs to the class of problems known as “NP-complete,” that is, problems computers cannot solve in a known amount of time. How much time have you got to test that a given voting system will function perfectly under all possible circumstances?

“What are people going to do about it?” she asks. “Say we fixed it when it’s theoretically not possible to fix these things at any real level?”

And she points out that many of the security problems now involve insiders with legitimate access to the software, bought off by organized crime gangs because of the money they can make. They only need a USB stick in their back pocket.

Grossman continues:

At least with voting, citizen groups are motivated to push for greater transparency. In the UK, Jason Kitcat, Green councilor for Brighton and Hove, on the south coast of England, organized volunteers to observe e-voting trials in the 2007 local government elections in England and Scotland on behalf of the Open Rights Group.

“We saw the same audit log issues,” he says. “We know from a computer science point of view that making an audit log that can’t be changed is impossible. But it seems as if there’s a huge disconnect between people who are computer-science literate, and the people delivering the policy.” [my emphasis]

Besides, politicians like making uncontroversial decisions. Who could fault them for trusting a company that makes ATMs worldwide? Again, it comes back to humans.

“The folks who buy ATMs [bank managers] and voting machines [election officials] don’t really want to pay for a facility that will make it easier for people to challenge them,” says Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, England.

“In the long run, of course, this ends up costing them more: fraud can lead to challenges that are systemic rather than local. Nevertheless, the purchasers may be rational. Most of the bank managers who bought crap ATM systems in the ’80s are retired now — they got away with it. With voting machines, some vendors have been discredited in some countries, but lots of money has still been made.”

That is, from us — the taxpayer and the bank customer. Kitcat says: “It is shocking that in this day and age this has been allowed to continue.”
This is a good overview of the issues today. NY has been the last holdout. Let's not let it happen here.

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