A new set of polls suggests that high-tech security experts have
significantly less confidence in the security and accuracy of e-voting
tools than does the public at large.
The polls, taken by the Poneman Institute, separately surveyed ordinary people and a much smaller group of researchers at the recent Defcon computer security conference.
The public survey was large enough to be scientific, while the Defcon
survey was not, but differences in opinion were large enough to draw
some broad conclusions, anyway, the researchers said.
A dominant 81 percent of security professionals at Defcon
said they had "no confidence or little confidence" in the "security and
reliability" of e-voting machines, but just 25 percent of the general
public said they had similarly strong reservations, and their main
concern was voters' reaction to the machines, not the devices'
Despite the apparent vote of confidence from the public, Poneman
Institute Chief Larry Poneman said policymakers should still be very
careful before depending on e-voting systems this fall. Even if
ordinary voters aren't terribly worried now, the concerns of security
professionals could filter down and ultimately undermine the
credibility of election results, or even dissuade people from voting,
"The technology may or may not be good," Poneman said.
"But to the extent that people might change their voting patterns based
on (their perceptions of) this technology, that could change the
The security of e-voting has been an increasingly
contentious issue over the past year, as electoral policymakers seek to
avoid the chaos of the 2000 election in Florida.
Proponents say electronic ballot machines are accurate and are more fair to the disabled and to people facing ballots in an unfamiliar language. Opponents say the machines are inherently insecure,
are subject to tampering and hacking, and often do not include a paper
record of votes that can be used for recounts or audits.
Although this debate has been hotly fought in courts,
legislative chambers and editorial pages for months, the Poneman study
found that stories of potential problems with e-voting have made little
impact on the public at large.
More than 50 percent of the security professionals said
they would be very worried about the potential of system or programming
errors, or attempts to influence the results of an election. Ordinary
citizens' biggest fear was of declines in voter turnout due to distrust
of the machines.
Indeed, 79 percent of ordinary citizens said they
believed that e-voting machines would be as accurate or more accurate
than traditional paper balloting.
Despite the seeming confidence of regular citizens, the
deep discomfort of some computer professionals was a bad sign for
ultimate confidence in the machines, according to at least one e-voting
critic. Harvard-affiliated researcher Rebecca Mercuri said
professionals' distrust of the machines could filter down to the
general public as more attention is paid to the issue.
"The general perception of voters that their votes may
not be counting or that something might be wrong with the election
equipment is very important," Mercuri said.
At last week's Black Hat USA 2004 Briefings and Training conference in Las Vegas, Mercuri called on would-be hackers to try to find the flaws in e-voting systems. She pointed to the $10,000 reward offered by e-voting proponent Michael Shamos, a Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist, to anyone who can successfully tamper undetectably with a voting machine.