Monday, November 1, 2010

Voting Machine Security (CMPT 335 Assignment 9)

Security in the Ballot Box - Issues with Electronic Voting Machines (Part A & B)
            For this assignment I decided to look into the recent allegations of voting machine malfunctions in Las Vegas.  I would like to begin by giving a brief summary of events according to local newspapers and accounts.  I should like to follow up with some information about the particular voting machine used and any relevant security concerns having to do with the specific machine.  This essay will end on my thoughts on the issue -- whether it is being handled effectively, whether it will affect the upcoming election, and so on.
            According to some early voters in Boulder City, Nevada, before getting a chance to cast their ballots the voting machines already had Democrat Harry Reid’s name selected.  It’s not clear if this was already selected as a default (and could be changed) or whether the printed paper ballot would force a vote for Mr. Reid.  Election officials claim that their poll workers have heard no complaints on the matter.  Furthermore Mr. Lemox (the Registrar) claims such malfunctions are impossible, given the technology being used.
            While the model of voting machine went unmentioned in the mass media articles, according to an article on the model in question is the Sequioa AVC Edge, which is apparently secure enough to emulate pac-man on – without removing the tamper-evident seals, even.  Now, whether Sequoia has updated their model to be more secure now (and whether truthout’s information on which model is being used is credible) I do not know.  But, the information taken at face value certainly fails to inspire confidence in the security of Nevada voting.  Furthermore, the New Jersey’s Center for Information Age Technology ran a number of tests on this particular model, and while functionality passed most of the criteria given by the State Attorney General, there are some interesting exceptions mentioned.  Specifically of note is that the machine’s paper ballot printer needs to be refilled about once every 120 voters, it doesn’t keep a log of when the paper is refilled, and during a refill, the stored paper ballots are accessible and subject to tampering.  All of this leads to a number of conclusions, few of them reassuring.
            While the machines have no apparent defect in and of themselves, it seems like they are relatively easily hacked into and reprogrammed.  Even regular maintenance allows stored votes to be at risk.  Given that, it is not hard to believe it possible that the allegations made about machines set up to cast votes for the Democrat by default may be true.  And, if these are indeed the voting systems in use, it seems Mr. Lemox and other state officials seem to have jumped the gun a bit in declaring these machines inviolable.
German, Jeff.  “Audit Resolves Voting Irregularity Questions.”  Las Vegas Review-Journal.  Oct. 28, 2010.  Accessed Oct. 30th, 2010. .

“County Denies Voting Machine Malfunction Claims” Fox 5 News, Las Vegas.  Oct. 26, 2010.  Accessed Oct. 30th, 2010 .

Friedman, Brad.  “Hacking Harry Reid (or Sharron’s Angle).”  Oct. 26, 2010.  Accessed Oct. 30th, 2010.
Feldman, Ariel J and J. Alex Halderman.  “PAC-MAN on the Sequoia AVC-Edge DRE voting machine.”

“Report to the Office of the Attorney General:  Sequoia AVC Edge Voter-verified Paper Record System Assessment.”  New Jersey Institute of Technology Center for Information Age Technology.  July 2007.  Accessed Oct. 30th, 2010.
(B) Impressions on technology in voting
            As long as I can remember, I have read articles and watched television news around election time, detailing stories of voter fraud or election fraud of one type or another.  So, I would like to detail a few recurring threads that always seem to come to the fore around voting time (well, my personal experiences and impressions anyway) and discuss whether or not technology has improved these things.
            First of all, I would like to point out that doubts and worries over the accuracy of ballot counts long predate their automation.  Whether you are reading Horace Greeley’s accounts about the corrupt Democrat machine in the 1800s, or about voter intimidation in the South during and after the Jim Crow era (where the Klu Klux Klan tried to force everyone to vote Democrat)... such concerns are hardly limited to the computer era.  In more recent history, the Helping Americans Vote Act of 2002 essentially budgeted something in the neighborhood of $2 billion of federal funds to improve many counties’ electoral systems.  This lead to the widespread use of electronic voting machines, digitized voter registration databases, and was aimed at preventing a repeat of the 2000 presidential election in Florida (where so-called ‘butterfly ballots’ supposedly led to voter confusion and a long cycle of recounts were finally put to an end by a Supreme Court decision).  Did this harm or help the accuracy of our voting system?
            The cynical side of me wants to say it ultimately accomplished nothing.  Whether it’s the aforementioned issues in Las Vegas, or the odiously suspicious election of Al Franken in Minnesota a year or two ago, it all comes down to how much we trust the poll workers to honestly and competently count the ballots at the end of the day.  It’s ultimately the same question whether we’re asking them to manually count those votes, or to provide physical security to prevent the hacking of voter machines.  On the bright side, it has made the poll workers life easier, in that the counting is automated, now.  And for the voter, a touch screen is easy to use, and certainly less annoying than butterfly ballots.  Though, in turn, voting machines are more expensive to buy and maintain than, say, marking down your vote with pen and paper.  And, if environmentalism is your fetish of choice, the requirement of printing out each ballot for extra verification means you’re not really saving on paper.  So, all in all, I have to say the computerization of voting has made things easier in some ways, but also more expensive and just as subject to suspicion.