News & Politics

Electronic voting without software?

Computer voting expert Avi Rubin says e-voting can be "software independent."
Avi Rubin, one of the country's foremost computer voting experts, said electronic voting systems do not have to rely on the unpredictable and unverifiable software used today.

In a July 9 interview with, the computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University said it was possible to build another generation of electronic voting machines that can be "software independent."

"The National Institute of Standards and Technology [NIST] identified what I think is a breakthrough property in an e-voting machine, which is the idea of making it software-independent," he said. "That means designing voting systems where a software failure does not have any possible impact on the accuracy and integrity of the election. This isn't my idea. This is NIST. They published a paper where they identified that, and I said that is the killer property that you want."

Rubin then explained how this kind of computerized voting machine would work.
You design it very, very differently. You have redundant components.
Let me give you an example of a system that is software-independent. You have a system where voters use a touch screen to make their selections and the touch-screen machine, when they're done, prints out a paper ballot that they look at and has all the candidate choices that they made. The voter then takes the completed, printed ballot, and they put it into a scanner. The scanner tallies the ballots up and keeps counts of all the votes. Now if the software on that system fails, they wouldn't get a printed-out ballot that they could then accept and approve.
After the election is over, you pick a bunch of scanners randomly, and you audit them. You count the papers, and you compare the totals that the scanners ran, or you have a different independent scanner that you run the ballots through to see if you get the same answers.
In any stage of the process, a flaw in the software will either be caught and corrected, or it will prevent you from proceeding, in which case you can get the ballots pulled up some other way.
Now let's compare that to an existing direct-recording electronic (DRE) touch-screen machine, where the voter comes in and marks his or her choices and they are stored on a magnetic card on the inside of the machine, and at the end of the day, the voting officials get the card and it has all the tallies. Any flaw in the software could change all the tallies or record the votes incorrectly, and there would be no checks and balances against that because there is no paper record of the actual choices made by the voters.
Rubin also said the landscape facing voters in 2008 is much improved since 2000, where confusion over various kinds of ballots in Florida led to a recount that was stopped by the U.S. Supreme Court, which awarded the presidency to George W. Bush.

"Things are improving," he said. "We're definitely much better than we were in 2004, when we had 37 states that were using fully electronic voting that was poorly designed, without paper ballot backups...

"The problem in 2004 was that very few of the systems were software-independent because they relied on the software to keep and store vote tallies. In my opinion, most systems that use optical scanning of paper ballots, whether they are generated by computer or by hand, are likely to have that property. But you could conceive of designing it so badly that it didn't have it."

[ED: Avi Rubin is pictured above]
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