The Voting Rights Struggle of Our Time

No image from the Florida 2000 vote counting fiasco is more memorable than that of Florida election workers holding punched ballot cards up to the light, checking for hanging chads.

Now election officials everywhere are trying to prevent another Florida-style election meltdown by replacing paper-based voting systems with new, all-computerized ones. The thinking seems to be that we can make those images of election workers carefully examining ballots a thing of the past simply by eliminating ballots altogether.

But that's like trying to solve accounting errors by eliminating your accounting department. Computerized voting solves the problem of the moment -- imperfect vote counting technology -- but replaces it with a whole set of new problems we are only just beginning to understand.

The biggest problem with computerized voting systems is that they are not transparent. There is simply no good reason for voters to trust a 100-percent computerized, paperless voting system run on proprietary software. People are not asked to exercise this kind of blind trust in any other important transaction, and voting is the most important transaction of all.

Voters who cast ballots on touchscreens have no way of knowing whether the machine captured their votes as the voter intended. Software can have bugs. Software can contain malicious code. Software can be incorrectly programmed. Systems crash. It's these kinds of risks that led hundreds of respected computer scientists and technologists to sign Stanford computer science professor David Dill's Resolution on Electronic Voting, which insists there be an audit trail to back up digital ballots.

Growing public awareness of these risks also led California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley earlier this year to convene a task force to study computerized voting. The Ad Hoc Touch Screen Task Force report was released July 2; members were divided on the paper trail issue. Secretary Shelley has given the public 30 days to evaluate the report and share their views with him before he decides whether he will raise the bar and require California's computerized voting machines to provide a voter-verified paper back-up of every digital ballot cast. The comment period ends Aug. 2.

The task force report is released at a time when momentum for a voter verified paper trail and improved election security is rapidly building across California and the U.S. as states and counties work to implement new voting requirements imposed under Help America Vote Act (HAVA).

Computerized voting is expected to increase dramatically all over the country within the next few years due to new federal HAVA funding to replace punch card and lever machines, as well as a mandate that all polling places provide at least one voting machine that allows blind and disabled voters to cast a secret ballot without assistance. Computerized machines are the only ones on the market today that can do that.

California is at the forefront of the paper trail debate because it is moving faster than other states to replace its voting systems due to a federal court order to replace Florida-style punch card voting machines, as well as the availability of $200 million in state bond funds to improve voting systems. If California's Secretary of State implements a voter verified paper trail requirement, it will likely have a ripple effect across the country since California is viewed as a trendsetting state when it comes to politics and technology.

Already three California counties -- Mendocino, Sacramento and San Mateo -- have indicated their support for a voter verified paper trail, and vendors are responding to the demand. In the past six months all three of the nation's top computerized voting vendors -- Diebold, ES&S and Sequoia -- have begun developing paper audit trail prototypes.

Some who think we don't need a paper trail tend to portray those of us who insist we do as paranoid conspiracy theorists. But any reasonable person who takes a moment to think about it quickly understands why it's not a good idea to trust 100 percent computerized, paperless voting systems run on secret software. A voter-verified, paper audit trail is the best way to mitigate the real and perceived security risks inherent in any computerized voting system.

Already there are signs that some voters lack confidence in computerized voting systems. A poll taken of Georgia's voters after that state deployed paperless touchscreens statewide in November 2002 found a significant racial disparity in voter confidence. While 79 percent of Georgia's white voters said they were very confident their votes would be accurately counted, only 40 percent of black voters expressed the same level of confidence.

This year, it was discovered that Georgia's vendor, Diebold, had used a public Internet FTP site to distribute a software patch to county election offices. It would have been relatively easy for anyone in the world to find that site and replace that software patch with a different one that contained malicious code.

There's no evidence of that happening, but there's no evidence that it didn't happen either. That's the problem: computerized voting as it is in use today is not transparent. We don't have access to the software, and we don't yet have the right to inspect a hard copy backup of our digital ballots before leaving the polls.

Transparency is not the easiest idea to conceptualize; the absence of transparency is even harder. But that's what's at stake here. It's like we've had a window into the world of elections but now it's being shuttered.

For paper and lever voting systems, we have developed elaborate security procedures to safeguard votes. For example, in a lever voting system, pollworkers check the mechanical counters before opening the polls to confirm the counters are set to zero. In a paper voting system, pollworkers open the ballot box and show the first voter at the polls that the box is empty and hasn't been pre-stuffed.

There are attempts to replicate such procedures in a computerized voting system. The first voter who casts a ballot on a touchscreen sees a zero on the screen designed to indicate that there are no prerecorded votes in the machine. But neither the voter nor the pollworker can actually confirm that -- the pollworker doesn't open the box and inspect the software to see that in fact it does not have any prestored votes.

Paper-based systems do rely on software to count ballots but the paper ballots also serve as an audit tool that can verify the accuracy of software-generated counts. California has a manual count law that requires a subset of the paper ballots to be selected at random and publicly tallied by hand to show the hand-counted totals match the software-counted totals. If there is no longer a paper audit trail, then we lose the ability to verify the computerized count.

It doesn't have to be this way. We could do this right. We could require computerized voting systems to create a paper backup of our digital ballots that voters can inspect (but not take with them) before leaving the polls. Election officials can then use these paper backups to verify the accuracy of computerized counts. That way when there are problems (and there always are) we have a way to recover from them. We don't have to ask voters to trust a handful of election officials and a private vendor to assure us that they got everything right.

Fortunately, support for a voter-verified paper trail is gaining momentum. A petition started by Martin Luther King III and author Greg Palast demands a halt to further computerization of balloting until such methods are no longer susceptible to political manipulation, fraud and racial bias. So far it's gathered over 39,000 signatures. In addition, Working Assets and the Electronic Frontier Foundation recently issued action alerts to their California members to contact Secretary of State Kevin Shelley and urge him to require a voter-verified paper trail.

Meanwhile in Washington, Congressman Rush Holt (D-N.J.) has introduced H.R. 2239, the "Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2003" which if enacted would require computerized voting systems to produce a voter-verified paper trail and would also require California-style manual counts of those paper back-ups. His bill is cosponsored by 26 other members of Congress, who no doubt trust Holt's assessment of computerized election security issues due in part to the fact that he is not only a congressman but also a physicist.

The growing interest and concern over computerized voting security is leading people all over the country to speak up and get involved. Their voices are not falling on deaf ears -- awareness is building among politicians and election officials at all levels of government that people are worried about election security. The question is, how will election officials and politicians respond? We will soon find out whether California will blaze a trail down a path that will lead to real computerized election security.

The fight for the right to inspect a paper backup of one's digital ballot may end up being the voting rights struggle of our time. For it is the consent of the governed that is the true mark of a legitimate government. And that consent can only be won when elections are conducted not in secret, but in plain sight.

Send your comments to California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley by Aug. 2.
Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, Attn: Touch Screen Report
1500 11th Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
fax (916) 653-9675.

Kim Alexander is president and founder of the nonprofit California Voter Foundation, a nonpartisan organization advancing the responsible use of technology to improve the democratic process. She also served as a member of Kevin Shelley's Ad Hoc Touch Screen Task Force.

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