May 7, 2004

Panelists probe possible problems with e-voting

A panel discussion titled "The Electronic Vote: When technology and democracy intersect, is democracy at risk?" was held on Tuesday, revealing to the audience the potential problems of electronic voting.

Adam Stubblefield, a doctoral candidate at the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute, spoke on the technical problems of the electronic voting systems, focusing mainly on the flaws in Diebold Systems. When Stubblefield was an undergraduate, he and three other students examined Diebold's code, finding a huge number of security flaws that were publicized nationally. Diebold Systems said that the code was not theirs, and when that failed, Stubblefield says they resorted to simply "calling names."

The state of Massachusetts then asked the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) to review Diebold's voting machine code. The SAIC deemed it to have a "high risk of compromise." Stubblefield proposed a system in which there is a voter verified paper trail, through which a physical ballot is printed out in addition to the computer counting the vote. That way, random districts could be checked to ensure that the paper ballots match the electronic ones. "Helping people vote correctly doesn't matter if we can't have confidence that the vote will be counted correctly," Stubblefield said.

Kenneth Janda, a political science professor at Northwestern University, spoke next, cautioning against electronic voting. He said it could lead to people casting their ballots from home, an act he referred to as "a private, unsocial act, more suited to recluses than citizens."

Sanford Morganstein, an alumnus of the University and president and founder of Populex Voting Systems, explained his company's views on the subject, saying that Populex machines sidestep the entire security issue by not even counting the votes. Instead, they print a ballot that may be easily read by both humans and machine and is completely secure against fraud. His machines, like most electronic voting booths, are capable of multi-language instructions and have the ability to read to illiterate voters.

The Cook County clerk, David Orr, spoke next. Orr, a self described "rough and tumble" politician who began his talk with anecdotes about his involvement in old Chicago politics, stated that we should avoid focusing only on the equipment. Orr feels that in Illinois and especially Cook County, these problems are slowly being solved, with the requirement of a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) by new Illinois law. He said that election-judge education and selection needed to be addressed as well.

Carolyn Shapiro, a visiting associate professor of law and an alumna of the University, spoke mainly on the various other methods for voting, their disadvantages, and "residual vote rates," which measure the inaccuracy of a voting system in a precinct. She also commented on how her short stature made it extremely difficult for her to vote using the standard punch card machine.