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Friday, November 21, 2008

Dilemmas in Electronic Voting: An Example from the Garden State

by Ryan Walden, MTTLR Associate Editor

Image I Voted? by Kenn Wilson. Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0 license.
Today’s voters are more likely than ever to read online blogs for political news and views, use candidate websites to examine their stances on the issues, and then make donations to their favored candidates online. Today’s voters are also more likely to cast their vote using an electronic voting machine, but not all consider that a welcome change. Just ask the plaintiffs in a New Jersey case challenging the use of electronic voting machines.

Last month, Andrew Appel, a computer science professor at Princeton, released a report of findings on the security of the Sequoia AVC Advantage voting machines (executive summary | pdf report). This report was submitted to the New Jersey Superior Court in support of the plaintiffs in Gusciora v. Corzine, a lawsuit alleging that the use of the AVC Advantage voting machines violates the state constitution’s guarantee to count every vote due to the possibility of fraud. The report finds that the machines, used in 18 of New Jersey’s 21 counties, can be hacked in as little as seven minutes by installing a new program into the computer to change vote totals. Appel demonstrates how the machines can be hacked in this (90 minute) video.

To combat possible fraud, Appel recommends voter verified paper trails, which would entail “an individual paper record of each vote cast, seen and verified by the voter at the time the vote is cast, collected in a ballot box so that it can be recounted by hand if necessary.” Voter verified paper trails is not a new idea – proposed legislation from Congressman Rush Holt (also of New Jersey) would mandate voter verified paper trails in federal elections. Even with voter verified paper trails, there must be a way to properly audit paper records to ensure no misconduct has occurred. The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law has released a report (pdf file) with recommendations for such audit mechanisms.

For their part, Sequoia Voting Systems, which makes the AVC Advantage voting machines, has rebutted the Appel report with a report of its own (pdf report | press release). Sequoia argues that the study was not conducted under real world settings, where detection of tampering is very likely. Sequoia also argues that the AVC Advantage machines were evaluated under “inappropriate standards” - noting that the Appel report’s assertion that the machines “must be correct in all circumstances” is an impossible standard to meet for any sort of voting system.

Ultimately, the arguments on both sides prompt the question: If we can’t have 100% accuracy, what level of inaccuracy is permissible? Sequoia is certainly right that no system will be correct in all circumstances, but if the Appel report is correct with regards to the sheer ease of changing votes, then that is not a sufficient rebuttal. Technology makes voting and counting votes easier, but it may also make voter fraud easier. Do the benefits outweigh the costs? A New York Times article notes that two-thirds of voters in the recent election were anticipated to vote by paper, with some states, including Florida, having switched back from electronic voting machines. Virginia and Maryland will switch back to paper ballots for the 2010 election. As for New Jersey? In light of this controversy, at least one Garden State political blogger suggests a decidedly un-21st century method of voting: through the U.S. Mail with an absentee ballot.

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