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Election Vaporware

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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.