Tuesday, March 13, 2007

FSU report on voting machines in Sarasota County

Florida State University recently released a report on the ES&S iVotronic voting machines used in the 2006 elections in Sarasota County in Florida, the results of which are under review. The report concludes that the voting machines were very insecure but that the anomalies were not down to a concerted attack on the system. Ed Felton agrees with that conclusion:

"The reason is simple: only a brainless attacker would cause undervotes. An attack that switched votes from one candidate to another would be more effective and much harder to detect.

So if it wasn’t a security attack, what was the cause of the undervotes?

Experience teaches that systems that are insecure tend to be unreliable as well — they tend to go wrong on their own even if nobody is attacking them...

The study claims to have ruled out reliability problems as a cause of the undervotes, but their evidence on this point is weak, and I think the jury is still out on whether voting machine malfunctions could be a significant cause of the undervotes...

I want to make the case for the other theory: that a malfunction or bug in the voting machines caused votes to be not recorded. The case sits on four pillars: (1) The postulated behavior is consistent with a common type of computer bug. (2) Similar bugs have been found in voting machines before. (3) The state-commissioned study would have been unlikely to find such a bug. (4) Studies of voting data show patterns that point to the bug theory."

He does believe, though, in spite of all the problems that have emerged with evoting systems, that computers can make voting more secure.

"It’s tempting to eliminate computers entirely, returning to old-fashioned paper voting, but I think this is a mistake. Paper has an important role, as I’ll describe below, but paper systems are subject to well-known problems such as ballot-box stuffing and chain voting, as well as other user-interface and logistical challenges.

Security does require some role for paper. Each vote must be recorded in a manner that is directly verified by the voter. And the system must be software-independent, meaning that its accuracy cannot rely on the correct functioning of any software system. Today’s paperless e-voting systems satisfy neither requirement, and the only practical way to meet the requirements is to use paper.

The proper role for computers, then, is to backstop the paper system, to improve it. What we want is not a computerized voting system, but a computer-augmented one.

This mindset changes how we think about the role of computers. Instead of trying to make computers do everything, we will look instead for weaknesses and gaps in the paper system, and ask how computers can plug them. "

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