Wednesday, April 30, 2008

How scanners and PCs will choose London's mayor

The Register is raising concerns about the electronic vote counting for the London mayoral election.

But despite all the changes, there are still those who are concerned that introducing technology into the voting process risks compromising the integrity of the vote. One such campaigner is Rebecca Mercuri, an American expert on electronic voting and counting systems.

She is worried that equipment provided by companies with little or no experience in elections could fail to provide an accurate count because of an unintentional design flaw. She cites the example of a US election where the counting system reached a certain number, and then started counting backwards.

"It's not that easy to design [a well planned counting system]," she told us.

But Bennet says he's confident that the machines will return a result that accurately reflects the will of the people, simply because of the huge volumes of test papers that have been scanned. Over the last 18 months, almost one million ballot papers have been counted on test runs, and Bennet is so sure of his system that he is prepared to claim the machines are more accurate than people.

"When we've had to do recounts because of a discrepancy between the machine and manual counts, it has always turned out that the machines are right and the people have made a mistake," he told us.

But Mercuri questions Bennet's confidence in the voting machines. Testing, she says, is only good at spotting the problems that can be forseen. Optical scanners in the US were rejecting ballots that had been marked with gel-ink pens, for example, but this wasn't picked up in testing because no one was looking for it. Only low vote totals alerted officials to the problem.

Pre-election testing is also no good at spotting machines that develop a fault, or have been compromised on the day. It might be possible, Mercuri contends, for a hidden piece of code to be activated, or for a machine to be subverted by scanning a particular bitmap image, or even by an engineer pressing a particular sequence of keys. These so-called Easter eggs are common in electronic equipment, she says, as manufacturers commonly install them to allow engineers access to configuration or diagnostic settings...

Bennet says that such an audit would be "meaningless" and bad for voter confidence. This is because the rules that govern the counting procedure do not allow for both a manual and electronic count...

"We could do a sample manual recount, but if it turned up a problem, we wouldn't be able to do anything about it, which would be the quickest way to collapse voter confidence in the result," Bennet told us.

This is an anathema to campaigners like Mercuri. "The law should always include some percentage of manual audit and there always must be a way that a problem with the check should trigger an investigation, possibly resulting in the discarding of the electronic totals.

And she is not the only one who thinks the electronic count should be audited. Becky Hogge, executive director of the Open Rights Group, says that ORG is campaigning for the law to be changed to make a manual recount of a statistically significant sample to be mandatory in all electronically counted elections."

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