Democracy Shouldn’t Require a Ph.D.

by on September 14, 2006 · 10 comments

Diebold is not happy with Prof. Felten’s paper:

The marketing director for the machine’s maker – Diebold Inc.’s Diebold Election Systems of Allen, Texas – blasted the report, saying Felten ignored newer software and security measures that prevent such hacking.

“I’m concerned by the fact we weren’t contacted to educate these people on where our current technology stands,” Mark Radke said.

This is pretty rich coming from a company that fiercely resists independent inspections of their machines. I rather doubt Prof. Felten deliberately chose an old version of Diebold’s software to make them look bad. In fact, I would be shocked if Diebold were willing to lend Prof. Felten a newer version of their voting machine so he could verify their claims that the security problems have been fixed.


But I think there’s a more fundamental lesson here: it’s simply not acceptable for us to have an election process that can only be evaluated by experts. The nice thing about paper ballots is that pretty much everyone understands how they work. If there’s an allegation that the voting machines are defective, election workers always have the option of counting the ballots by hand. Yes, that can be messy, error prone, and take a long time. But the process is also directly observable and verifiable by people with absolutely no technical background.

Indeed, anybody who doubts that a paper-ballot election is fair is free to become an election judge and watch the entire process for herself. My girlfriend did just that a few weeks ago. In St. Louis, voters have an option of using paper or computerized voting systems. With the paper ballots, the election judge can observe the entire process from beginning to end. Yes, a machine may help speed up the counting process, but if there’s any doubt about the machine’s accuracy, a manual recount can always be done.

In contrast, with computerized voting machines, ordinary citizens don’t have any way to verify if the machine is working properly (unless it’s producing voter-verified paper records of each vote, as Felten suggests in the paper). To a non-technical observer, a computer is a black box whose inner workings are entirely mysterious. Which means that whether our voting system is secure becomes an esoteric matter to be debated by the experts, like the minutia of monetary policy or antitrust law. The vast majority of people, understandably, have a tendency to tune such debates out.

Computerized voting is transforming our election process into something that can only be understood by a handful of elites. It seems to me that that’s a much more serious problem than hanging chads or butterfly ballots. You shouldn’t need a Ph.D. in computer science to figure out whether our elections are being conducted fairly.

  • Walter E. Wallis

    I suspect an old IBMer could play tricks on the patch board of one of the ballot readers, and tossing ballot boxes into the bay isn’t high tech.

  • Walter E. Wallis

    I suspect an old IBMer could play tricks on the patch board of one of the ballot readers, and tossing ballot boxes into the bay isn’t high tech.

  • Brian Moore

    What boggles my mind is: I’m a programmer — this isn’t hard stuff. The design of a secure, option selecting system is trivial stuff — banks do far more complex things with billions of dollars every day. Why is it hard to do this? Why are there bugs? You present a hardcoded list of options and count the number of times each button is pressed. Then, allow ZERO physical data access to the machine until the election is over. That’s it. Monkeys could program that. What’s the problem here?

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis Villa

    The push for electronic voting isn’t going away, unfortunately- perceived efficiencies and the (very real) problem of paper ballot stuffing will make it inevitable. Might as well push for it to be open source- I think Red Hat ought to take the project on.

  • Brian Moore

    What boggles my mind is: I’m a programmer — this isn’t hard stuff. The design of a secure, option selecting system is trivial stuff — banks do far more complex things with billions of dollars every day. Why is it hard to do this? Why are there bugs? You present a hardcoded list of options and count the number of times each button is pressed. Then, allow ZERO physical data access to the machine until the election is over. That’s it. Monkeys could program that. What’s the problem here?

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis Villa

    The push for electronic voting isn’t going away, unfortunately- perceived efficiencies and the (very real) problem of paper ballot stuffing will make it inevitable. Might as well push for it to be open source- I think Red Hat ought to take the project on.

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis Villa

    Brian: banks and Vegas. Hire a bunch of slot machine guys and they could do this in their spare time :)

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis Villa

    Brian: banks and Vegas. Hire a bunch of slot machine guys and they could do this in their spare time :)

  • dave byrd

    1st – i am not the diebold guy – though stunned to see my name in lights and associated with this outfit.

    2nd – the powers that be simply dont want a tamper-proof system – otherwise how could they sell it to foreign ‘democracies’ for the goal of predetermining their election outcomes. go empire?

    3rd – i would prefer to vote with my cell phone – over 220M cell phones in US today and rising, 72% penetration. Only 122M voted in ’04 presidential election or 40% of the population. May disciminate against the poor and uneducated, but they could still go to polling stations. If SSN is linked to account and business phones are excluded, it could ensure “one person – one vote”. Although privacy is out the window – but i dont mind.

  • dave byrd

    1st – i am not the diebold guy – though stunned to see my name in lights and associated with this outfit.

    2nd – the powers that be simply dont want a tamper-proof system – otherwise how could they sell it to foreign ‘democracies’ for the goal of predetermining their election outcomes. go empire?

    3rd – i would prefer to vote with my cell phone – over 220M cell phones in US today and rising, 72% penetration. Only 122M voted in ’04 presidential election or 40% of the population. May disciminate against the poor and uneducated, but they could still go to polling stations. If SSN is linked to account and business phones are excluded, it could ensure “one person – one vote”. Although privacy is out the window – but i dont mind.

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