Published on Monday, August 5, 2002 by CommonDreams.org
The Nightmare Scenario Is Here - Computer Voting With No Paper Trail
by Lynn Landes
Rebecca Mercuri has a dream....and political candidates and their supporters had
better listen up unless they want to see all their hard work go down the tube
because of voting machine failure or finagling.
Mercuri is a computer science professor at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, president of the consulting firm Notable Software, and one of the nation's foremost experts in the field of voting machine technology and security. Her testimony has been used in legal battles involving voting system failures, including the Bush-Gore election.
For the last 10 years she's dreamed of the day when voting machines can be relied upon to register and count every vote correctly; where man and machine, paper and process, come together to guarantee an almost fail-safe voting system. She's even given her dream a name, "The Mercuri Method for Voter-Verified Physical Ballots."Yes, she's a bit of a nerd and proud of it.
But instead of seeing her dream come true, Mercuri is living her worst nightmare. Scores of county election boards across the nation have rushed out and bought the latest high tech 'paperless' voting machines. And leading the herd off the cliff is Theresa LePore. That's right, the Queen of Chad, Supervisor of Elections in Palm Beach County, Florida, who some say single handedly cost Al Gore the presidency, is back with another debacle. Her office is being sued by the former Republican mayor of Boca Raton, Emil Danciu, who claims that the city council election held last March should be re-run due to malfunctions in the new $14 million dollar computer voting machines LePore bought from Sequoia Voting Systems Inc..
Sound familiar? But wait. There's a new twist to this old tale. LePore is once again, and almost perversely, providing a much-needed service by demonstrating how bungled the job of electronic voting can get. The machines LePore purchased can't be audited through a paper trail. There are no ballots. Making matters worse, LePore signed an agreement with Sequoia to protect their "trade secrets," which effectively prohibits any party contesting an election from examining the machine or its programming. That's convenient for Sequoia and the winner, but alarming for critics who believe the voting process should not be based on a Titanic leap of faith.
Mercuri says that in order for an electronic voting system to have any integrity, five components must be present - a voter, a ballot, a computerized voting machine, a printer, and an optical scanner - and three basic steps must be taken. First, the voting machine registers a voter's selection both electronically and on a paper ballot. Second, the machine then displays the paper ballot behind clear glass or plastic so that the voter can review their selection, but not take the ballot home by mistake. If the voter's selection doesn't agree with the ballot or the voter makes a mistake, the voter can call a poll worker to void the ballot, and then re-vote. And third, the paper ballot is optically scanned (most likely at the county administration building), providing a second electronic tally. If anything goes wrong with either the voting machines or the optical scanner, the paper ballots can be hand-counted as a last resort or as part of an audit. And voila! We have a fully auditable voting system with checks and balances, review and redundancy.
This is an extremely important issue. Due to difficulties using voting equipment, 1.5 million presidential votes were not recorded in 2000, and up to 3.5 million votes weren't recorded in the last election cycle for the Senate and state governors, according to The CalTech/MIT Technology Report of July 2001.
The chief problem with paperless computer voting, according to Mercuri, is this, "Any programmer can write code that displays one thing on a screen, records something else, and prints yet another result. There is no known way to ensure that this is not happening inside of a voting system." And Mercuri points out, "No electronic voting system has been certified to even the lowest level of the U.S. government or international computer security standards..." The Federal Election Commission provides only voluntary standards, and even those don't ensure election "integrity," she says.
As for Internet voting...forget about it. "A secure Internet voting system is theoretically possible, but it would be the first secure networked application ever created in the history of computers," says Bruce Schneier, founder of Counterpane Internet Security, Inc.
This summer Congress has been working on H.R. 2275, which provides for the establishment of an election standards commission. Election standards would still be voluntary, but Mercuri believes that the technical standards, if developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, will be effective. Unfortunately, the bill got tabled until the fall.
It's not too late to fix the problem for those counties that have already bought paperless computer voting machines, like my hometown of Philadelphia. Election officials can simply attach a printer to the computer and then feed the results into an optical scanner. A printer should cost about $20-50. Optical scanners that are hand-fed can cost $3,000 – 4,000 and scan 2,000 - 3000 ballots per hour. For populated counties automated units can cost $40,000 - $50,000 and scan 20,000 ballots per hour.
As it stands, the integrity of the voting process in the United States has already been damaged. Without a paper ballot and absent a voter's ability to check their selection, computer voting is an invitation to across the board malfunction and malfeasance. With the legitimacy of our representative democracy at stake, it's time to make Dr. Mercuri's dream come true.
Lynn Landes is a freelance journalist who specializes in environmental issues. She's a weekly commentator on BBC's Radio Five Live and reports environmental news for DUTV in Philadelphia, PA. Her website is at EcoTalk.org