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David Dill

David Dill

Posted: September 25, 2007 02:08 PM

Election Vaporware


Huffington Post blogger Robert D. Atkinson recently posted a column opposing HR 811, Rep. Rush Holt's bill to require a voter-verified paper record of each vote, because he feels that new technology which has never been used in a government election might come to the rescue at some point in the indefinite future.

Let's remember the problem that HR 811 will solve. Many states and counties still use paperless electronic voting systems. There is no way to tell whether the recorded votes in these systems have any relation to the votes actually cast.

This problem is urgent. Only a few months ago, the Secretary of State of California commissioned a large team of world-class computer security experts to evaluate California's current electronic voting. The team demonstrated that three different systems in current use could be completely taken over by a single anonymous poll worker, who could control how the machines recorded and reported every electronic vote in a subsequent election.

Atkinson's solution? To wait, indefinitely. He promotes theoretical proposals by cryptographers to provide "universal verifiability," while preserving ballot secrecy, and concludes that our highest priority should be to accommodate these voting methods, which have yet to be used any any government election. (Ironically, almost all of these schemes rely on some form of paper ballot.)

Cryptographic voting is definitely not ready for prime time. A few years ago, I tried to organize an expert evaluation of one of the systems discussed at length in the ITIF report. The cryptographers I tried to recruit responded with comments like: "Why don't we just use paper ballots?" If that's how many experts feel about these systems, it's hard to imagine the general public embracing them.

The greatest difficulty with cryptographic voting is lack of transparency. Is a system "universally verifiable" when only a few mathematicians can understand why it can be trusted?

Atkinson's column fails to answer the most important question: What do we do about the horribly insecure paperless electronic voting systems in use now, especially given the results of California's review? How many unbelievable elections are we going to have while we wait for "universal verifiability"?

I would like to see research in cryptographic voting continue, and I hope that, someday, there will be practical results in that area. If and when there is a practical method, legislation can address it at that time if necessary. Meanwhile, we need to deal with the urgent problems we have now, with the technology we have now.

Cryptographic voting is a distraction from dealing with our real problems. That's why it's suddenly so attractive to proponents of electronic voting.