David A. Wheeler's Blog

Mon, 14 Jun 2004

Democracy Requires Verified Voting

I’m a strong advocate of democracy, but democracy only works if a small group of people can’t rig the outcome. Sadly, that’s no longer true; many counties have unwisely begun installing computerized voting systems that cannot be verified, and in fact are untrustworthy.

That means a single person could determine who wins or loses a given election, by simply modifying the reports from unverifiable computers. By adding just a few lines of code to a voting program, or breaking into one (experts have generally reported them to be easy to break into), you could make an unverifiable voting system say whatever you wanted it to say. That’s nonsense.

The paperless electronic voting systems have already demonstrated that they can never be trusted; here are a few examples from CNN:

  1. “In a January special election for a Florida state house seat, 134 people using paperless voting terminals in Broward County failed to cast votes for any candidate. The race was decided by a margin of 12 votes. It’s unclear why some voters didn’t select candidates; and without a paper trail, poll workers couldn’t figure out voters’ intentions.
  2. In North Carolina’s 2002 general election, a software bug deleted 436 electronic ballots from six paperless machines in two counties. Election Systems & Software Inc., which built the terminals, determined that the machines erroneously thought their memories were full and stopped counting votes, even though voters kept casting ballots.
  3. Earlier this year, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley banned the use of a paperless system made by Diebold Inc. after he found uncertified software and other problems that “jeopardized” the outcome of elections in several counties. At least 20 states have introduced legislation requiring a paper record of every vote cast.”

As noted in the article Gambling on Voting (NY Times, June 13, 2004), gambling equipment is far more trustworthy than voting machines. For example, the state has access to all gambling software (electronic voting machine makers say their software is a trade secret), and the machines are spot-checked to make sure that the software running is what’s registered.

What’s needed, as a bare minimum, is verified voting. The VerifiedVoting.org folks wisely advocate the use of voter-verified paper ballots (VVPBs) for all elections in the United States, so voters can inspect individual permanent records of their ballots before they are cast and so meaningful recounts may be conducted. They also insist that electronic voting equipment and software be open to public scrutiny and that random, surprise recounts be conducted on a regular basis to audit election equipment. Without these simple safeguards, we’ll all be forced to say that the computer ate my vote.

I urge anyone in a democratic country to ensure that these minimal requirements of verified voting (by paper ballot) are met.

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