E-voting battles, Part 2: Report author responds to my criticism

By Martin Bosworth

In response to my criticism of a policy paper decrying paper audit trails for electronic voting, report author Daniel Castro claimed that I wasn’t addressing all the tenets of his argument and wanted me to take a closer look at his work (the paper can be found here). I’ll answer each of his comments in turn:

1. Paper audit trails have many limitations, which many discussions of paper audit trails do not consider.

My argument isn’t that paper auditing is perfect and flawless. Far from it. No system is perfect, and every technology is going to have the capacity for error and malfunction. No, my argument is that your policy paper espouses the idea of an “all or nothing” approach to vote auditing systems, where everything has to be electronic and supporters of paper-based auditing are “technophobes” (Your words, not mine), while glossing over the many substantial problems and dysfunctions found in current electronic voting technology. The fact that we’re still talking about paper audit trails and paper balloting in 2007 is a criminal indictment of how badly the electronic voting industry has failed to provide accurate, secure electronic systems, far beyond any reasonable expectation of error. This Techdirt article is a good summation of my point–instead of complaining about how long it takes to count paper ballots, we should be asking why these companies can’t create reliable, usable, and accurate machines.

2. We state in the paper that we want Congress to require that all e-voting machines have durable, independent, verifiable audit trails, but we should not mandate that these audit trails be paper. Many other (and arguably better) options exist, such as audio audit trails or video audit trails. Many of these other audit trail technologies work better for people with disabilities.

I don’t have an argument with this at all, as disabled-rights organizations have a legitimate beef over the fact that many old-fashioned paper-based systems can be difficult to use. Disenfranchisement of disabled voters due to inaccessible systems or processes is a serious problem that electronic voting or combinations of electronic and paper voting can address. But imagine if we tried to create a voting technology that was capable of ministering to the needs of every different type of disability, from the blind to the deaf to the paraplegic. Your think tank’s employers would scream bloody murder even more than they do over letting independent auditors look at their code. As it stands, many existing electronic-voting technologies are cumbersome to use for both the disabled AND regularly abled to use, which leads right back to the initial problem of voter disenfranchisement.

Why can we not use multiple forms of voter-verifiable and third-party verifiable technologies? Why can’t it be paper-based, audio-based, AND video-based? The more, the merrier, I say. Our democracy can only be better served by utilizing as many avenues for verifiable, accurate voting as possible.

3. Finally, what we really want is for better voting technology that allows “end-to-end verifiability” or “universal verifiability.” This is the cryptography that we discuss in the latter part of the report, in systems such as VoteHere and Scratch & Vote (not mentioned in the paper, but also an option is Punchscan). We say that this is the goal we should be working towards — fully verifiable voting systems where a voter can verify that his or her ballot has been counted in the final vote tally BUT cannot prove to another voter how he or she voted. If you do not understand how this could work, then read the paper. We explain the cryptography behind it — and if our explanation does not convince you, then we provide references back to the academic papers that first proposed these ideas.

Again, I did read the paper and I actually like how these technologies work, but that’s not the point I am making. I am completely in favor of adopting the state of the art in electronic voting technology on every level–but that, again, is not the point I am making. My point is embodied in statements of yours such as the following:

The success of these groups reflects the high degree of polarization and distrust in politics, as well as the
emotional investment many people have in elections. Many opponents of electronic voting machines are
motivated by a distrust of technology, anger at election results, and conspiracy theories about voting companies.

You’re not going to win a lot of converts to your position by calling the opposition kooks and nuts, Daniel. You should know better. And any participant in a democracy should have an emotional investment in elections–it’s the cornerstone of what makes a democracy work. What is my point? Well, you actually make it for me a few paragraphs later:

In areas from online banking, to health information technology, to aviation, Americans trust computers every day with their lives and livelihood, not because computers are infallible, but because the benefits of technology significantly outweigh the risks.

What do all of these areas have in common? They can all combine modern and old-fashioned technology to provide the best of both worlds. I can bank online and get a paper printout of my bank balance. I can set up a doctor’s appointment online and he can keep a paper record of it in his office, while I print out a record of the transaction. Even in aviation–I can fly on a plane with a printed copy of my ticket that I bought and reserved online. This was the point I was making in my original post–that these systems work because of multiple avenues of verification. They all happen to be paper in this case–they don’t have to be, but the fact that they are is quite telling.

In sum, you haven’t really addressed any of the points I’ve made either–that your think tank’s support of a “no paper” position is mostly due to your being supported by tech industry heavyweights, that you do opponents of pure e-voting a disservice by insulting them, and that there doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” stance in this issue. Our democracy demands safe, accurate, and reliable voting systems. They don’t have to be fast, but they DO have to get the job done and done right. Accuracy IS more important than convenience in this regard, and security–not to mention best practices–have to be endemic to the process.

8 replies »

  1. That’s one of the finest pieces on the subject I’ve seen, Martin. Personally, over the years I’ve been tracking an underlying issue, not voter apathy, but voter ignorance. This is from a piece of mine written after the 2004 election:

    “Then, on September 22 of this year, a groundbreaking treatise on voter ignorance appeared. Perhaps out of deference to the urgent need to register voters–any voter–progressives failed to respond to Ilya Somin’s policy analysis for the libertarian Cato Institute, “When Ignorance Isn’t Bliss: How Political Ignorance Threatens Democracy.” Lacking even the most basic political information, most voters, Professor Somin maintains, are in no position to communicate their will to the candidates.

    The ignorant voter, he continues, lacks the knowledge to assign credit and blame for policy outcomes to the correct office holders (like the informed voter can?). Worse, unless spoonfed a program by a force as well organized as the Far Right, he’s unable to understand how issues are connected. Each issue, in other words, exists in a vacuum.

    One can hear the collective exclamation: “I knew it, I knew it.” Basically, as Christopher Shea, who cites an earlier piece by Professor Somin, states, the ignorant voter bases his vote on vague feelings about how life is treating him–yet another suspicion whose confirmation one dreads. Essentially conceding governance to the elite, the ignorant voter thus dilutes democracy.

  2. This is an excellent piece, as is your original one on this subject. I had no idea that there is such antagonism to having a good ol’ fashioned voter paper trail.

    I am training to work on ‘508’ friendly web projects – making sites accessible to people with disabilities, especially visual disabilities. It’s an eye opener (excuse the pun) to find out how many people are ALREADY shut out from the high tech world because there are limited alternatives for them to receive electronic media.

    Because voting is so critical, any and every technology (including old school paper) should be modified to accommodate people with disabilities.

    “these systems work because of multiple avenues of verification. ” This point sums up your whole argument. Paper and electronic auditing systems should both be used for elections – a check and balance system, kinda like how our government works 😉

    Many people are and don’t feel comfortable switching to electronic voting technology, or any other electronic technology. Many people are very intelligent but can’t handle the cognitive stress 🙂 of learning new technology. Why should they have to? People don’t have to switch to online banking. They don’t even have to have internet access (as we all know, many people wan’t it and can’t get it!)

    So what if there are technophobes? They have the right to vote too!

  3. I have to concur with the previous responses. Combine that with the fact that I haven’t read your initial critique yet – I stopped in my tracks when I read the assertion that the report made regarding destruction of transparency, security, etc in an, as you succinctly point out, an “all or nothing” approach.

    The issue that I find most contentious is the supporters of e-only voting arguing that it is “transparent” when all support of transparency has been wholly resisted. I cannot, rationally, believe that any of these supporters would bank online, buy from Amazon, and so forth if told “Thanks for your order. To provide you with the greatest degree of security we no longer provide transaction numbers, order status, or shipping information. Your package will arrive at an undisclosed date to ensure no one sees that you have ordered anything. Additionally, we have added a random dollar amount to your order, masked the merchant name that will appear, and will choose a random date in the future to post this transaction to your account. We have also partnered with a number of other organizations to combine charges so that, should anyone gain access to your credit card statements, your purchase habits will be less readil identifiable.”

    Security is a concern – yes. However, it is more realistic that the one most concerned with security is the voter; specifically related to ensuring their vote cannot be re-cast, miscounted, or otherwise tampered with. Encryption, user salted hashing, etc provide a layer of security towards this end, but still don’t cover the possibility of displaying Vote A and casting Vote B. Only the seperation of vote collection, vost casting, and auditing supply the level of disconnection to reduce the capacity to automate fraud – reduce; not prevent. The paper trail mechanism is not capable of preventing this either – however, it provides yet another layer of de-coupled record keeping that significantly raises the bar to subvert the process.

    My final issue: He who records the transactions should not and cannot be the same “He” who performs the audit of the system or the data. Additionally, with the critical importance of voting, he who wrote the system should never, ever, ever be the “he” who tests it – and especially not the “he” who verifies it.

    Am I a technophobe? Not in the least – I design enterprise systems for a living. In all cases, I’ve never met a user who demanded the system be transparent through obfuscation or opaqueness. Guess I’ve had the wrong user base. I’ve also never gotten away with saying “Just trust me – the numbers add up because the system says they do. I wrote it – I should know. But, I can’t show you how – you just don’t trust computers, Grandma…” Again, wrong user base, I suppose.

    Me – I want the audit trail not because I don’t trust the computer(s) to do simple addition. I want it because I don’t trust the people behind the machines.


  4. I’ve also been blogging about the Daniel Castro’s ITIF eVoting report:

    Detailed point-by-point review

    In brief:
    I am basic agreement with the thesis of the report which is that the debate about eVoting should move beyond voter-verified paper audit trails to include systems that can prove to a voter that their vote was counted as cast. However, I found the tone and focus of the report disagreeable and I disagreed with much of the material in the report advocating for eVoting and against voter-verified paper audit trails.

    For those who are interested, Please stay tuned at my site as soon I will also be posting comments from an email exchange by Castro and my responses.