Sunday, November 26, 2006

A vote of no confidence

The 6 November 2006 issue of eWeek magazine has an article titled "A vote of no confidence" about the mess created by the rush to computerize voting systems in the US. One of the people they interviewed, Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University, says "Election officials...didn't even consider huge issues such as the lack of audit capabilities [or] the security implications. The result was the adoption of a bunch of half-baked solutions that by no means can be considered a reasonable way to conduct trustworthy elections. If you were in charge of a private-sector project like this, you'd get fired - it's that simple."

But although the officials responsible for the e-voting snafu could not see the problems with the systems they purchased, there is no such excuse for the computer professionals who developed these flawed systems. The lack of any form of audit trail in these systems was an intentional design decision - but why? The most benign interpretation I can think of is that the designers don't want anyone to know when their systems malfunction. Obviously, much more sinister interpretations are possible. And that's before we consider the ease with which these systems can be compromised (hacked), and the apparent links between
one of the manufacturers and a foreign government critical of the US.

The question that puzzles me is why any kind of machine is needed to hold an election. Here in Canada I have worked as a poll official on federal and provincial elections. My poll clerk and I seal the empty ballot box at the start of the day, and never leave it unattended. Each ballot has a serial-numbered stub. In federal elections I sign the back of the unmarked ballot to prove its authenticity. The voter marks it with an X, folds it and brings it back to me. I detach and retain the stub, and the voter puts the ballot in the box. Due to our constant surveillance it's impossible to stuff the box, but even if that were to happen, it would be obvious since the number of ballots would exceed the number of stubs; and in a federal election the false ballots would lack my signature.

At the end of the day my poll clerk and I open the box and count the ballots, under the close scrutiny of the candidates' representatives. We immediately give the results in writing to the candidates' representatives and telephone them to the central reporting office for the district. Because the information is made public as soon as it's available, there's no point in tampering with the ballots after that time except perhaps in very close races that require a recount. To prevent that, we immediately seal the counted ballots and courier them to the central office, which locks them up in case a recount is ordered.

This system, using nothing more complex than a pencil, produces results quickly and transparently - everyone can see how it works, so they have confidence in it.

Getting voters registered also seems to be a big issue in the US, but not in Canada. The reason is that we register simply by putting a check mark on our income tax returns. And in Canada everyone submits an income tax return; even teenagers and those with no income submit a tax return, because that qualifies them for a quarterly payout that's advertised as a rebate of the federal sales tax, but is really a come-on to get people registered as voters and taxpayers. And for those who somehow contrive to miss getting on the voter's roll, we sign them up at the polling station and seal their vote until their eligibility is confirmed, at which time we add it to the pool of votes. Nobody gets turned away on election day!