By DAVID SHAMAH LAST UPDATED: 11/01/2010
With today’s advanced computers, there is an alternative to ballot boxes and hanging chads: electronic voting.
Once every couple of years, politicians remember who pays their salary and come down from their high places to confer with “the people.” That memorable event is known as Election Day, which comes annually in the United States, with different classes of hacks, desperate to keep their jobs, assaulting voters with ceaseless adjurations to come out to the polls and ensure them another two or four years of living off the sweat of the taxpayers’ brow. Or something like that. (I know this sounds terribly cynical, but really – who else but politicians can a writer have fun with during these very PC times?)
In Israel, we get to vote for our leaders once every few years, too, but the schedule is a lot less precise. Knesset members, too, have nice, cushy jobs, so you would expect them to want to stick it out for the full five years of their elected term. But since Israeli voters are apparently big believers in “revolving door” leadership (how long have Peres, Netanyahu, Barak, et alia had top leadership jobs?), I suppose most of the Knesset members figure they’re a shoo-in to get elected next time, too. And if they play their cards right next time around, they might just win one of those “grand prizes” – i.e., a ministerial position. It’s always nice to have something to aspire to!
All right, enough with the cynicism – I kid. We appreciate the hard work our leaders put in, and we wish them well in their difficult work of leading Israel through these tumultuous times. But really, a little cynicism isn’t out of place on Election Day (this Tuesday in the US), considering the history of fraud in recent elections.
“Fraud” really isn’t the right word; it’s more like “allegations of fraud” that concern voters, and rightly so. We all remember the 2000 election debacle in Florida (readers of a certain age will immediately recognize the term “hanging chad”). And of course, there are always rumors in Israel following any election about that favorite pastime, ballot-box stuffing. Many Israeli politicians may not know English well, but “vote early and often” is one phrase they seem to have picked up.
With today’s advanced computers, though, there is an alternative to ballot boxes and hanging chads: electronic voting, where voters press buttons on a computer (or a touch screen) and make their choices. Computers, being the exact, efficient counting and tabulating machines there are, would seem like a good choice to ward off possible election fraud. The information remains in the machine (or is uploaded to a central server) until it’s counted, at which point there are no questions about the results. It’s a sure-fire way to eliminate any doubt as to the results of an election, no?
No, says Aviel Rubin, a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University and one of the world’s leading experts on electronic voting.
“One of the big problems with the move to electronic voting is the growth of what I call ‘wholesale fraud,’ versus the ‘retail fraud’ of paper ballots or lever voting machines,” he says. “With paper ballots and levers, you have to go on-site to the polling place in order to perpetrate fraud, limiting the possibilities. But if you can corrupt the code on an electronic machine, you can implement fraud on many machines, all at once, in a wholesale manner.”
Despite the risks, electronic voting is here to stay. After the 2000 presidential election in Florida, where the results of voting were disputed for months, it took a Supreme Court decision to finally allow for the election’s results to be certified. That event scared politicians, says Rubin, and they realized that something had to be done to prevent a repeat.
“At the time, electronic voting systems were coming into vogue, and politicians, considering the triumph of technology in other areas of society, saw computers as an easy solution to questionable election results,” he says.
To enable voting districts to step up their voting game, the US government distributed $4 billion to voting districts throughout the country, so they could buy new voting systems.
“Unfortunately, many districts did not spend their money wisely, and bought systems that did not guarantee proper standards of security and accountability,” says Rubin. Concerned about how the money was being spent, the National Science Foundation funded research that Rubin and is colleagues were doing on electronic voting systems in Maryland. What they found wasn’t pretty.
According to Rubin’s report: “Our analysis shows that [the Diebold’s AccuVote-TS] voting system is far below even the most minimal security standards applicable in other contexts. We identify several problems including unauthorized privilege escalation, incorrect use of cryptography, vulnerabilities to network threats, and poor software development processes. We show that voters, without any insider privileges, can cast unlimited votes without being detected by any mechanisms within the voting terminal software. Furthermore, we show that even the most serious of our outsider attacks could have been discovered and executed without access to the source code.”
Before the 2004 presidential election, Rubin wrote several op-ed pieces on the issue, and he was later interviewed numerous times in the media, presenting his chilling analysis to the voting public.
But paper ballots and lever machines aren’t any safer, are they? Rubin agrees and says that he sees the solution in a hybrid system, where voters make their choices on a touch screen, which then prints out their choices on a neat paper ballot. The ballot is then submitted to an authentication scanner, which officially records the vote electronically, while keeping the paper ballot as a backup.
“This way, if there are any questions, you can refer to the paper ballots for a recount, while retaining the accuracy and convenience of electronic voting,” he says.
Rubin’s ideas have begun catching on in Washington, and he now heads the NSF-funded ACCURATE (A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable and Transparent Elections) project, which researches and recommends safe ways technology can be used to improve voting systems.
Rubin is on a one-year sabbatical, doing research at Tel Aviv University (as a Fulbright scholar, he is working in Israel under the auspices of the United States-Israel Educational Foundation).
No elections are scheduled between now and next September, when Rubin resumes his work at Johns Hopkins... but this being Israel, you never know. If elections do suddenly crop up, the political establishment would do well to heed his warnings on voter fraud. There’s only so much “the people” are willing to take, and no politician likes the idea that their vote is being misused.
Even in Israel, those “hanging chads” might just raise the ire of the voters enough to “hang” the offenders “out to dry.” How do you say “throw the bums out” in Hebrew?