Poor Design Choices

By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2007-07-30 Print this article Print

But the potential holes are also curiously North American. Unfortunately, Worthington notes, many people read about e-voting problems in the USA and assume that such problems apply to the rest of the world. Not so, he says. "Apart from the U.K., which made some poor choices in using Internet voting for local elections, the USA probably has the poorest designed electronic voting systems in the developed world," he said.
Ouch. Whats wrong with us?
Its not that were incapable of designing systems that work securely. "The USA has some very good software engineers and if given a brief to develop an electronic voting system they could produce one as good as those elsewhere in the world," Worthington said. Many experts concur: The problem with e-voting in the USA is, in fact, not one of a technical nature; rather, it is a political and administrative issue. Michelle Shafer, vice president of communications and external affairs for Sequoia Voting Systems, in Oakland, Calif., points out that each of the 50 states has its own election laws that must be followed. As well, voting equipment must meet specific requirements in each state—and thats on top of complying with federal voluntary voting system guidelines that have been adopted by most states. Thats "voluntary for the states," not voluntary for the vendors who have to tailor their systems to each of their 50 clients. Click here to read about e-voting glitches during the 2006 election. "Elections in the United States are extremely complicated, especially compared to other countries, because we do have unique election law in each of our states," Shafer said in an e-mail exchange with eWEEK. "This does present challenges to election technology providers because this is not a one-size-fits-all marketplace where one machine or version of software can be used in any state." An example of the contradictory requests that come from various jurisdictions concerns ballot rotation—the order in which candidates or propositions appear on a ballot. States requirements vary and are "completely different," Shafer said. "This applies to paper ballots as well as electronic ballots (and this issue is much easier to address with an electronic system, as the software takes care of rotation)." Sequoia, the countrys first maker of touch-screen voting machines, has been in business over 100 years—its corporate ancestor having been in the business of making lever voting machines. With that much institutional knowledge of U.S. elections and various state requirements, the company doesnt sweat varying state requirements. Rather, where states rights come into play in the security profile of U.S. e-voting systems is with the inability of the federal government to requisition and mandate the use of one single system for use throughout the land. Brazil, for one, is "way ahead of us in many ways," according to voting expert Dr. Ted Selker, associate professor at the MIT Media and Arts Technology Laboratory and director of MITs Context Aware Computing Labs. One of the ways Brazil has shown the United States up is that the government cooked its own code and gave it to five manufacturers to bake into an e-voting system in the early 90s, after rampant fraud had led the electorate to lose confidence in the system. It wasnt smooth sailing at first for Brazil, though, in spite of the fact that the country controlled its own e-voting technology. In 1998, Brazil started using Unisys technology that turned out to have a high failure rate, with some 7 percent of machines unable to deliver votes electronically. But by 2000, the number of machines unable to return votes was down to .02 percent. Of the countrys electorate, 106 million were using the machines to vote, and the simple systems had enviable cost and ruggedness: At a cost of $300-$400 each, the systems worked for hours on a simple set of batteries. Not only that, but the systems, which displayed photos of candidates, were also highly accessible to Brazils population, many of whom are illiterate. "[The systems] really changed [the level of] trust in government," Selker said. "By making that many and making them uniform, they also have an incredible price." Next Page: Is it safe to disclose source code?

Lisa Vaas is News Editor/Operations for eWEEK.com and also serves as editor of the Database topic center. Since 1995, she has also been a Webcast news show anchorperson and a reporter covering the IT industry. She has focused on customer relationship management technology, IT salaries and careers, effects of the H1-B visa on the technology workforce, wireless technology, security, and, most recently, databases and the technologies that touch upon them. Her articles have appeared in eWEEK's print edition, on eWEEK.com, and in the startup IT magazine PC Connection. Prior to becoming a journalist, Vaas experienced an array of eye-opening careers, including driving a cab in Boston, photographing cranky babies in shopping malls, selling cameras, typography and computer training. She stopped a hair short of finishing an M.A. in English at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She earned a B.S. in Communications from Emerson College. She runs two open-mic reading series in Boston and currently keeps bees in her home in Mashpee, Mass.

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