By Martin Bosworth
Earlier this month, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a self-proclaimed “nonpartisan think tank,” released a policy statement opposing the usage of paper audit trails for electronic voting machines. The report’s author, Daniel Castro, wastes no time staking out the ITIF’s position on the issue, calling supporters of paper balloting and audit trails a “technophobic movement,” and saying that the debate needs to “move beyond discussions of paper” into purely electronic voter-auditing trails.
Castro would seem to make a persuasive argument about the safety of e-voting, but there are a few things that trip up his own “paper audit trail,” if you will.
Castro’s employer, the ITIF, is an adjunct arm of the Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC), a massive technology industry lobby group that counts heavyweights such as Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, and Unisys among its members. Many of these companies have been deeply invested in writing source code, applications, and providing hardware for e-voting machines, so they get a black eye as well every time they fail. Naturally, since it costs less to pay analysts to write papers supporting their position than it does to write better code, the ITIC has undoubtedly nudged the ITIF to put this thing out and stir the pot in their favor.
Castro is also extremely facile in dismissing the serious problems with e-voting machines that can malfunction, be tampered with, or simply not work properly from the start. A regular sticking point in debates over e-voting security is enabling third party auditors to have full access to the source code in order to ensure it is stable, secure, and cannot be easily tampered with or altered. Castro says that “Many DRE vendors are unwilling to release their source code publicly
because they fear copyright infringement. They also fear that individual reviewers will make unsubstantiated claims against their voting systems prior to an election simply to undermine the publicâ€™s confidence in the voting systems.”
As it happens, I recently wrote an article for Federal Computer Week detailing the decertification of thousands of voting machines in California due to pervasive, multileveled errors in the source code and software of the machines. We’re not talking malicious code inserted by hackers, but simple, stupid, garden-variety mistakes made by coders and designers who probably aren’t getting paid enough, don’t have the requisite skill, and were under tremendous pressure to get these machines’ software up and running in time for elections. As Dr. Rebecca Mercuri said when I interviewed her (paraphrasing slightly), “This is what happens when you build machines without security as a core principle. Adding voter-verified paper audit trails to insecure machines won’t change the essential problem.”
The idea often proposed by e-voting proponents (and echoed by Castro) is that if we trust critical everyday applications like banking, doctor’s appointments, etc. to purely electronic means, well, why not voting? The difference is this–if I bank online, I always have the option of printing out my current account statement, a billing invoice for a transaction, or some kind of record that proves I did what I did, when I did it. I would never use any service or company that completely prohibited or failed to provide ANY kind of paper record for electronic transactions. Even something as simple as an e-mail notice verifying I bought something online is a record I can refer to later if things go wrong. Given the importance of elections and making sure that they transpire fairly and honestly, the idea that there is something flawed about demanding a verifiable paper trail of every voter’s vote seems silly on its face.
Obviously, paper audit trails won’t address the problem of inherently insecure systems–that’s a much deeper issue that needs to be addressed if electronic voting is ever to be adopted on a large-scale basis throughout the country. But to simply dismiss the idea of adding a verifiable paper audit trail as a check on a potentially vulnerable and insecure system as “technophobia” betrays both a lack of understanding of the seriousness of the e-voting problem, and the obvious desires of the companies invested in the e-voting experiment to prevent anyone from seeing just how crappy their systems really are. As Ed Felten says:
One could spend months arguing about what exact position emerges from the 19 pages of delicately drafted hedging that make up the body of this report. But the bottom line â€” contrary to the impression most readers will gather from the report â€” is that paper and electronic voting together are, if done right, better than either the best paper system or the best computerized system would be alone.
No system can ever be completely 100 percent secure, but when it’s something as important to our country and democratic process as voting, every measure that adds transparency and accountability to the process is a worthwhile endeavor. In a perfect world, no state, county, or city would permit voting machines with records as dismal as Diebold’s or Sequoia’s from EVER being used. But until that day comes, using a verifiable voter-auditable paper trail is a good start to keep these machines–and their makers–honest. And giving paid flack reports like Castro’s the criticism they deserve will serve to keep so-called “nonpartisan think tanks” honest about their own paper trails as well.