Venezuela held a national referendum last month in which the incumbent president, Hugo Chavez, defeated an attempt by the opposition to oust him from office. The nationwide election was conducted using electronic voting machines that created a paper audit trail of each vote cast.
In his Aug. 23 article “E-voting: Its Security, Stupid,” Ben Rothke makes many excellent points. But his conclusion that “secure e-voting … could be developed, but it might amount to the application equivalent of the Manhattan Project,” is invalidated by the electoral drama in Venezuela.
The results of this hotly contested recall election also highlight the dangers of rashly implementing insecure e-voting systems that lack any sort of paper audit trail, as Maryland and other states are preparing to do.
After the electoral commission reported the results, which showed 59 percent of ballots cast for continuance in office versus 41 percent against, the opposition said the election was rigged. The international observers present, including Jimmy Carter and observers from the Organization of American States, confirmed the results. The e-voting system used in this election “was developed by a Venezuelan- American consortium led by Smartmatic that permitted touch-screen voting, with each choice backed up by a paper ballot,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
In Maryland, my state government insists on using Diebolds AccuVote-TS system, even after a review by leading computer security experts identified significant vulnerabilities that could “jeopardize the accuracy and integrity of election results,” according to a statement by Avi Rubin, technical director of the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
The Diebold system does not print a paper ballot or produce any other form of written audit trail. The Maryland State Board of Elections, defending the e-voting scheme, claims to be using a voting system that meets all voting system standards established by the federal government and states that attaching a printer to the voting system would be a violation of Maryland election law.
The board claims paper receipts offer a false sense of security because they do not guarantee that the results recorded in the machine are the same results printed on the receipt.
However, the recall vote in Venezuela shows that an electronic voting system, which produces paper ballots that can be matched with the machine count if a recount is required, can work. Today, an e-voting system is commercially available that offers a secondary tally of the votes cast that can be used to verify the computerized totals. It can be done—if there are politicians in this country willing to admit no electronic system will ever be 100 percent secure and a paper audit trail is required of any e-voting system.
Edward Custer is a senior systems analyst at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. His e-mail address is [email protected]. Free Spectrum is a forum for the IT community. Send submissions to [email protected].