Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Risk to Election Integrity Posed by of E-Voting

The American Constitution Society for Law and Policy (ACS) Blog
The Risk to Election Integrity Posed by of E-Voting

By Congressman Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), Ranking Member of the Committee on Homeland Security. Congressman Thompson served on the Agriculture, Budget and Small Business Committees before assuming the top Democratic position on Homeland Security.

A recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice revealed that the three major voting systems used in this country have significant security and reliability vulnerabilities which pose a real danger to the integrity of local, state and national elections. These vulnerabilities are so harmful they can affect the outcome of an election. After witnessing the narrow margin of victory in both the 2000 and 2004 elections, an examination of our voting system should be a top-shelf priority. Our failure to do so will leave American voters without the necessary confidence that their vote is free from corruption. Under our current system, an insider, such as a poll worker could conceivably modify the votes or as equally disturbing, match votes with the voters who cast them. And outsiders, such as computer hackers and cyber terrorists, can compromise the security of our system resulting in false election results. Our system of free and fair elections, secret ballots and reliable outcomes is a symbol of our democracy and we must therefore utilize every measure to ensure confidence in every local, state and national election.

A major flaw in our current system is the lack of a paper trail that could be used to compare how voters voted and actual results. Shifting from our current system to a computerized system that provides a paper trail will allow a voter to review a paper ballot that verifies for the voter that their vote was received and for whom their vote was cast. These paper ballots would be properly stored by election officials and can be used to determine a voter’s intent in the event of a system crash or recount. You would not make a major purchase or bank transaction without a receipt, your vote should be just as valuable. Currently, the only record of a voter’s choice is the electronic record that is stored within the system used; therefore, if there is a claim that the system did not function properly or was subject to tampering the “improper results” is the only record of what happened and the true results of the election will remain forever unknown. The will of the people and the correct candidate of their choice can be lost without a paper trail.

Moreover, there must be frequent independent audits of the major systems used. As one expert has noted, under our current system the votes are invisible and the counting is virtual. Therefore, the combination of a paper trail and independent audits will go far in preserving the integrity of an election. The electronic voting system is essentially a computer and with any computer there is the possibility of system malfunctions. A malfunction of this nature could skew the results of thousands of machines in as many precincts and could seriously debilitate the outcome of an election. These malfunctions can derive from normal mechanical flaws or from tampering with the machine with the intent to cause an error. In either event, frequent audits of the system could determine whether the results can be trusted. Moreover, even when an election appears to be “successful” it could have very well been subject to security violations that are wholly undetectable. In many instances, it would be impossible to know with any degree of certainty that the true intent of the voters is reflected in the actual outcome without frequent, mandatory audits of the system.

We must also protect our voting systems from the insertion of Software Attack programs or other corrupt software. Cyber security experts indicate that this vulnerability represents the least difficult manner of corrupting an election. In an exercise performed by a Columbia, Maryland-based company, “hired hackers” were able to disable machines by jamming a voter card into the terminal or lifting it up and pulling out the wires, they guessed the passwords on the cards that were needed to access the machines and found the passwords that were the source code for the computers. They also determined that the server that tabulates election results was not properly updated and were able to break into the server remotely via dial-up modems. This clearly shows that changes need to be made and they need to be made soon. With advances in technology, people are becoming more computer savvy and are becoming able to perform maneuvers with less technical expertise. As a result, hackers can corrupt our system and totally disrupt the credibility of election outcomes. The good news is that simple steps can be taken to effectively thwart attacks by hackers. The bad news is that there is not an outcry to make these changes.

The flaws that exist within the current system can be easily remedied, yet we have been unwilling to implement the necessary procedures for doing so. Our failure to eradicate, or at least attempt to eradicate, flaws within our voting system sends a message to voters that we are not concerned about the integrity of their vote.

We continuously promote the importance of voter participation and during each election cycle make massive attempts to register eligible voters and convince them of their obligation as citizens to participate in our electoral process. In exchange, we purportedly offer them safe, secure elections that are free from fraud. This is what makes us America and this is the bedrock of our republic. We must deliver on our promise and take all necessary measures to ensure the integrity of our elections. It has been shown that e-voting is not the best way to achieve this goal. We must therefore adapt and change with the environment and revise our system to safeguard our process.