You’ve Got Mail, Mr. President: Two New Letters Weigh In on Voting Technology Issues


[Image courtesy of beatsandbombs]

For the past month, the election community has been focused to different degrees on President Obama’s Election Night observation that “we need to fix” problems that caused long lines at the polls on Election Day.

Recently, the President received two separate letters from computer scientists and advocates concerned about the role of technology in elections.

The first, from California Voter Foundation founder and President Kim Alexander and 28 co-signers, focuses heavily on the concept of verifiable voting systems and urges the Administration to put a federal stamp on the problem:

It is not possible to do audits or recounts of elections conducted with paperless, electronic
voting machines because they provide no independent record of how voters intended to
vote. Such unverifiable systems do not belong in U.S. elections. By contrast, paper-based
optical scan voting systems are far preferable. In addition to producing fast, accurate
results, optical scan systems also:

• are much more “low tech” than DREs: they don’t limit voting in polling places to the
number of machines available or require electricity, equipment or a even a voting
booth, thus reducing the potential for bottlenecks and long wait times;

• create a durable paper record that the voter has directly marked;

• require much less technical expertise on the part of pollworkers; and

• most importantly, produce a vote count that can be meaningfully recounted and
publicly and independently audited and verified.

We urge you to take steps at the federal level to eliminate the use of nonverifiable voting
equipment in the U.S. as rapidly as possible.

The second letter, signed by computer scientist Barbara Simons and 49 co-signers (many of whom appear on the first letter but also including some election officials), covers much of the same territory but contains stronger language on the perceived danger of Internet voting:

Internet voting (the return of voted ballots over the Internet including fax and e-mail) has been proposed as a solution to long lines at the polls. But since it is vulnerable to attacks from
anyone/anywhere, Internet voting must not be allowed at this time. In addition to security and accuracy
risks, Internet voting threatens the secret ballot, which is key to avoiding voter coercion and vote
buying and selling. The secret ballot was originally instituted not as a right that an individual can
waive, but rather as an obligation of the government to protect all citizens from coercion and
intimidation as they cast their votes. Because of multiple intrinsic risks, Internet voting should be
forbidden unless and until proposed systems have undergone extensive, independent public review and
open testing to ensure that they have solved the fundamental problems of security, privacy,
authentication, and verification.

The two letters in combination suggest the following agenda for election policymakers:

  1. an emphasis on verifiable voting systems, namely paper-based optical scan ballots;
  2. a focus on auditability of voting systems; and
  3. a deep-seated opposition to Internet voting.

I’d expect these talking points to feature prominently in the upcoming reform debate. It will be interesting to see if this community is as successful in affecting policy as it was during the voting technology debates of 2004-2006. If so, you can expect the end result of the process to strongly resemble the content of these two letters.

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