ITIF E-voting Report

by on September 19, 2007 · 2 comments

Ars reports on a new ITIF report critiquing the push for voter-verified paper trails in electronic voting. It’s a good summary over all, but I found a couple of things wanting about this part of it:

Castro makes his arguments against paper trails largely by ignoring the different role that paper has played (and may again play) during balloting. Currently, paper-only balloting is being suggested as a stop-gap solution for situations where the alternative is the use of electronic systems with recognized flaws; very few propose paper as a long-term solution. But a substantial fraction of the report is dedicated to enumerating the flaws of all-paper systems. Meanwhile, it attempts to use those same flaws to paint any attempts at using paper in any context—including cases where paper would create a supplemental record in electronic voting—as being equally flawed.

The report’s approach to people who oppose electronic voting systems is equally clumsy. A lot of the opposition to electronic voting is not focused on the concept itself, but rather some of the clearly flawed implementations of these systems. Instead of recognizing this distinction, Castro simply paints opponents as paranoid luddites: “Many opponents of electronic voting machines are motivated by a distrust of technology, anger at election results, and conspiracy theories about voting companies.” That sort of language pervades the report; concerns regarding the independence and robustness of voting machine validation apparently doesn’t exist. In Castro’s mind, the only opposition results from ill-informed paranoia: “Because some people do not understand that voting machines must undergo independent testing, they fear that a voting machine may steal their vote.”

I don’t know of any rigorous polling on the subject, but I think it’s an overstatement to say that “very few propose paper as a long-term solution.” Personally, I think that it’s at the very least an open question whether e-voting will ever be secure enough to be trusted, even with a paper trail. Certainly a paper trail is a big step in the right direction, and I certainly think there are strong arguments for making computerize ballot-marking machines available to the disabled. But given the large dangers and small benefits of e-voting, I think it’s a mistake to assume that paper is just a stopgap solution.

Relatedly, I think it’s a little bit misleading to say that e-voting critics are against “clearly flawed implementations” rather than e-voting itself. E-voting critics—including those like Ed Felten and Avi Rubin who support e-voting with a paper trail—emphasize that paperless e-voting fails for fundamental, systematic reasons. They advocate paper trails because they believe we can’t depend on the correctness of software systems that will always be vulnerable to hacking. I guess in some sense the lack of a paper trail is a “flawed implementation,” but I think it makes more sense to say that paperless e-voting is inherently insecure.

With that said, Ars is certainly right that it’s silly to paint e-voting critics as paranoid cranks. Ed Felten has a good post that ends thus:

The real worst-case scenario isn’t divergent paper and electronic records — with their attendant litigation and political discord. The real worst case is an attack or error that never even comes to the attention of election officials or the public, because there isn’t an independent way of catching problems.

That’s exactly right.

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