on Fri Aug 06, '04 03:50 PM from the head-in-the-sand dept. cweditor writes "Sorry to be touting one of my own Computerworld stories,
but I only covered it because I found it so interesting. The Ponemon
Institute surveyed 2,933 members of the general public and then 100
DEFCON and Black Hat attendees to get their views on electronic voting.
'The degree of difference was startling,' said director Larry Ponemon.
It was the biggest split between 'experts and the public he'd ever
found. For example, 83% of the experts said e-voting is less or much
less secure against election tampering than paper ballots, compared
with just 19% of the general public."
Did you actually read the article? All the way to the end, that is? The
only thing that actually went wonky was the machine that projects the
totals up on the wall. And it was smart enough to know that it hadn't
been reset, so it delibaretly put up huge numbers to attract attention
to the fact. As the article said, at no time was the actual voting
machine off in any way. In short, there are plenty of reasons to
dislike or distrust electronic voting, but this is a particulary bad
example to use as one of them.
Maybe people don't hack into the old unpatched NT box because there
would be no valuable reason to do so. Or maybe it does get hacked but
when the hacker sees there's nothing of interest, he leaves and hunts
for another target.
But election tampering, *now* you've got something valuable. Being
able to bypass democracy and nominate (in opposition to elect) the guy
who has the power to say "Let's bomb Iraq some more", now you've got a
good reason to worry about security.
I have a little server at home that basically only runs to
gather high-scores from a little amateur online game I made. There's no
reason for me to patch it ad-nauseum since I don't really care if the
machine crashes or gets hacked or anything. Just as a hacker would care
about somebody's high score when he sees my server.
Being paranoid is trying to secure something nobody would want
to tamper with. Making sure nobody can hack into the e-voting system
that will elect the next president is *not* being paranoid, it's plain
ol' common sense.
Sometimes, the old fashioned way is the best way. We had a federal
election a couple of months ago in Canada, and it was all paper &
People could come from 9AM to 9PM to take the piece of paper, go
behind the curtain over there, mark the paper with the pen (make an X
in a cirle next to the one you want to vote for... not all that
complicated), and put the little piece of paper in the sealed box.
At the end of the day, human beings opened the sealed boxes,
with several witnesses (at least one representative of each party, plus
other government officials), and hand-counted each ballot. Take one
paper, show it to everybody, add 1 to the score of the guy on that
ballot, put the ballot in a pile. Repeat the process about 500 times
per box, for each of the thousands and thousands of boxes around the
country. The whole process of counting takes about an hour, and there's
very very few occurences of a party requiring a recount, because
everything has been done in front of at least 10 witnesses.
Where's the need for all that electronic voting stuff? Maybe it
goes faster, and maybe the paper-way requires the hiring of more people
(thus costing more in salaries), but consider the cost of buying the
electronic stuff, then the cost of all the judicial stuff that happens
because votes are missing or something got hacked or so.
Go back to plain ol' paper & pens, and let democracy reign.
Amen to that. I've always been of the opinion that the requirement for
speed of counting has been a detriment to the entire process. For
something as important as voting...we can wait. And with paper and pen,
there's almost no chance to misinterpret a vote.
since they only interviewed 100 experts to the 2,933 everyjoes,
Error bars on statistical samples IIR are (N^0.5); thus, percentages
have error bars of (N^-0.5). Thus, the 83% expert opinion on 100
experts is +/- 10%; the 19% opinion on 2933 everyjoes has an error of
about 1.8%. So, even worst case, the experts are more than three times
as likely to distrust the computer voting.
"Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At
best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe
and not make messes in the house." --Heinlein
but how much do these 'experts' know about how secure paper ballots
really are? They should also interview a third group: those who are
experts in the paper system.
I think a more telling question is: What "Paper Balots" did John Q Public think he was comparing to the e-voting systems?
And as usual we have a "game of telephone" going on here:
- We don't KNOW what the actual question on the survey was.
- The Computerworld article said "traditional paper ballot machines".
(Maybe that was what was actually in the question. Let's assume it for
- But when the Computerworld article's own author posted it to
slashdot, he warped it to "Paper Ballots". And this thread is following
you and I know that paper ballots - the ones with the square boxes with
hand-drawn Xes - are subject to some tampering, but it's hard to do it
without leaving tracks, while a purely electronic systems is subject to
all sorts of invisible breakdowns, from mechanical problems, software
bugs, and malicious tampering.
But if you're talking
"traditional paper ballot machines" you just completely dropped that
system. Now you're talking about either punchcards, or optical mark
What experience does John Q. have with either?
punched cards, his sole reference point on reliability is the media
storm over the presidential election in Florida. You know - the one
where the democrats are STILL claiming the Republicans stole the
election. Optical sense cards are subject to mis-scanning. Both can be
hit by operational irregularities (such as not running one stack
through while running another through twice.) Both are subject to
cheating by replacement of physical ballots (as are all the other
systems except e-voting without printed audit trail). Both are subject
to exactly the same opportunities for accidental or malicious
corruption of the vote counting hardware and software.
(And don't even get me STARTED on mechanical voting machines...)
why SHOULD John Q. think that the e systems AREN'T better than the
"traditional paper ballot MACHINES" - whose software has had more time
for malicious bug injection and whose hardware and operational systems
have been the subject of a recent major scandal?
IMHO John Q.
may be right: All the objections except lack of an audit trail apply to
the other paper ballot MACHINE systems, and they also have a better
opportunity for misreading through mechanical failure or "user error"
than the e systems. And since the audit trail is rarely checked, who's
to say that the elections haven't been corrupted for decades.
the important thing about this flap is that it could lead to a less
corruptable counting system than we've had since I became eligible to
vote back in the '60s. The extra opportunity for unchecked vote
corruption has lead to a move to eliminate the problem with the new
machines by adding an audit trail, and to regular random surveilance of
that audit trail. This, combined with the lower MECHANICAL error rate
of the systems and the redundant counting mechanism will set a new,
higher standard for the OLDER systems, and should lead to a much more
Then, if we move on to eliminating the OTHER
sources of election corruption (ineligible voters, multiple
registrations, etc.), we might actually come up with fair and accurate
elections within what remains of my lifetime. B-)
What makes it even less informative is that these "experts" are not
experts in the field that's being discussed. The numbers would at least
be interesting if they had actually used experts knowledgable about
if you're a conspiracy theorist, one can argue that the politicians,
especially the incumbents, want to be able to tamper with ballet result.
needs a conspiracy, just one guy with an agenda and a connected system
can tamper with elecotronic ballots, that is why there is all the fuss.
At least with physical ballots you really do need a conspiracy to
tamper with them successfully. And then there is usually more physical
evidence of the tampering.
Computers are useful for the same
reason they are dangerous for voting, computers substantially seperate
the content from the physical medium, making deleting, copying, and
modification much easier. Sure you can recontruct some deleted files on
a hard disk, but try figuring out what the votes should have been if
they are deleted, especially by someone with knowledge of the system.
these machines are around for a few years, then you can be assured that
even that sweet little grandmother volunteering down at the polling
place, whom you don't realize has been strong armed by the local party
boss, will be plugging in her ipod to the back of one of these machines
and revoting 70% of the votes the correct way using a simple program
she downloaded off the web. Even she will not really feel too guilty
just plugging in a wire into the back of a terminal... or maybe just
about as guilty as a seventeen year old hacker
The point is that the general public doesn't know what happens behind
the scene when they click on a button with their mouse. Maybe the
reason those experts don't trust e-voting is because they know it takes
only so much to be able to read and modify data going through the net.
It's disturbing when technical issues become central to a wider
political issue that involves everybody, yet very few people have the
background to understand it or have an informed opinion about it.
Software patents is such an issue. This one is too, and much more
important. It's quite easy to lie and mislead the general public with
it, since few people have the knowledge to see through the bullshit.
Ponemon Institute surveyed 2,933 members of the general public and then
100 DEFCON and Black Hat attendees to get their views on electronic
DEFCON is hardly the right place to be conducting a
survey about the "hackability" of an electronic voting system. 50% of
this year's attendees could probably figure out how to hack the vote
before their third Mountain Dew.
50% of this year's attendees could probably figure out how to hack the vote before their third Mountain Dew.
shows that there are clearly people out there who have the skills and,
given the right circumstances, the will to be hired by a political
campaign, incumbant, lobbyist organization, or criminal organization to
aid their respective agendas. When big power plays and money are
involved, hiring a computer cracker is probably just part of doing
It is amazing how trusting (or maybe it's just ignorant) the population is as regards e-voting.
It seems as if they blindly trust our gov't to protect them from
voting fraud. It's my opinion that the voting booth is really (short of
violence) the ONLY tool that the population has to control their
To trust the gov't to keep the vote safe is kind of like putting the fox to work gaurding the henhouse.
The right to a secure, private, verifiable vote is the very
foundation our country was built on. It's a shame that more people
don't take it seriously.
Is why elections officials are so adamantly opposed to a paper trail?
Sure, it creates extra expense in the short term, but it simplifies
matters (by using electronic voting, hands down then the chad-bearing
cards) and provides an auditable trail.
Look at the graph in the article. The biggest fear of the voting public
is "Declines in voter turnout because of fear or distrust of e-voting
other words, their greatest fear is that people will realize that
e-voting is a recipe for fraud and will stay home. Their greatest fear
is that people respond rationally to what I think most of us believe is
the truth. That just astounds me.
To quote a popular saying, He who counts the votes, elects. The only way to ensure the safety of ballots is to distribute the counting of ballots among a larger number of people.
more centralized the ballot counting, the easier it is to corrupt, the
more distributed it is, the more difficult it is to corrupt and the
greater the likelihood of exposure.
And by distributed, I'm not talking about computers networks, I'm talking about people.
Was it the sheep climbing onto the altar, or the cattle lowing to be slain, or the Son of God hanging dead and bloodied on a cross that told me this was a world condemned, but loved and bought with blood.
My wife has been terribly excited by electronic voting because it
promises to be accessible. She takes great offense that because she is
blind she has to get assistance to vote under the current system.
taken a while, but I've finally convinced her that being able to "vote"
is pointless if the "vote" is not counted or they system itself is
It's interesting that the local newspaper,
the Berkeley Daily Planet took the position that being opposed to
electronic voting was a scheme to disenfranchise the disabled. It took
a while, but following many insightful letters, they finally admitted
that electronic voting as currently proposed in Alameda had the more
serious potential to disenfranchise everyone!
technical professionals it's important we become informed as possible
on the subject. That way when your dad or neighbour ask about
electronic voting you can explain the dangers and current issues. The
more the general public learns about electronic voting, the better off
we all will be. (and these survey numbers will be more favourable)
I read somewhere that only 5% of the general public has a basic
understanding of the concepts behind major everyday items such as a
television or a refrigerator. Unfortunately I can't find the source of
that figure (but paraphrasing Homer Simpson - "87% of all figures are
made up anyways")
this underscores an important weakness in our society. When a TV or
fridge was simply a consumer item, it was less important to know how it
works. Now that large parts of our economy (finance, software,
inventory, logistics), society (arts and culture) and democracy itself
is largely controlled by computers this knowledge gap become
increasingly important. People looking to control these sectors can
increasingly rely on the general populace to not understand the issues
involved. Just look at the bills passed regarding the use of technology
(DMCA, HAVA, etc.) and you'll see that basic weakness exploited.