Progressive Writers Bloc

Black-Box Voting

By David Chandler

My day job is teaching but I'm a computer programmer on the side. I have written software that computes where comets will be in their orbits on a given date, where they will appear in the sky, where one should search for them if they don't return on schedule, and a lot more fun things that are very easy for a computer but tedious to work out by hand.

A few years ago I was playing around in my mind with what it would take to write a computer program to allow computerized voting. On the surface it is almost a trivial problem. What could be simpler than writing a program to record votes and count them up.

The problem is not how to do the counting. It's how to protect against glitches. Anyone who has ever had their computer "crash", and just about everyone who has ever owned a computer has had a crash of one kind or another, knows that volatile computer memory is not a reliable place to store important information without a "hard copy" for backup. Practically my first thought in this little exercise, was that a computer being used for something as important as tallying votes would need to print a card with the names of the selected candidates in human-readable form (possibly alongside a corresponding bar code) that the voter could check over for accuracy then put into a conventional ballot box. The electronic tally in the machine could be used to give immediate results and a scan of the ballots could provide a quick and easy verification. If there were a call for a recount, the cards could be read by human eyes to verify the scan results. Voting by computer could produce clean results, clean laser-printed backup ballots, and contribute toward clean elections.

What has emerged is something else entirely: touch-screen voting machines with modems attached, no paper trail, and murky, proprietary software. I couldn't imagine in my wildest dreams being able to market a product so lacking in basic safeguards and so prone to tampering. Proprietary software is a standing invitation to rig elections. A modem connection is a literal hand in the ballot box allowing unseen persons to monitor and/or alter voting results. The lack of a paper trail is the most absurd, incompetent design idea imaginable. Practically any programmer I know, if hired to design a secure voting system, would reject this design as laughable. The fact that machines of this kind are in fact the dominant electronic voting systems on the market (produced by Diebold Election Systems and a few other companies) raises serious suspicions that criminality, and not merely incompetence, is the driving force.

It's not just me. When touch screen voting machines were about to be foisted on Santa Clara County, home of Silicon Valley, there was a huge outcry demanding a paper trail. Four top computer scientists from the University of California, Johns Hopkins University, and Rice University published a scathing critique of Diebold's system in the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy 2004. In their 23 page article they conclude,

"Using publicly available source code, we performed an analysis of the April 2002 snapshot of Diebold's AccuVote-TS 4.3.1 electronic voting system. We found significant security flaws: voters can trivially cast multiple ballots with no built-in traceability, administrative functions can be performed by regular voters, and the threats posed by insiders such as poll workers, software developers, and janitors is even greater. Based on our analysis of the development environment, including change logs and comments, we believe that an appropriate level of programming discipline for a project such as this was not maintained. In fact, there appears to have been little quality control in the process.

"…The model where individual vendors write proprietary code to run our elections appears to be unreliable, and if we do not change the process of designing our voting systems, we will have no confidence that our election results will reflect the will of the electorate. We owe it to ourselves and to our future to have robust, well-designed election systems to preserve the bedrock of our democracy."

This should not be a partisan issue: it hits at the foundations of democracy. It is in everyone's interests to have elections that are fair and transparent. At minimum we must demand a paper trail. Let your elected representatives know you demand a paper trail. See our web site,, for links to more detailed information and how you can make your voice heard on this critical issue.

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