Electronic voting and the security of a paper trail

A Board of Elections employee assists a voter with using an electronic voting booth in Wilson, North Carolina.

On this election day, I'll be looking at a map. Not of swing states that could go red or blue, but a map measuring states' voting technology, and which have the best and the worst chances of messing up the count. For instance, Wisconsin: Good. Georgia: Not so good at making sure votes are recorded in a way that can be audited or recounted if needed. David Dill is a computer science professor at Stanford, and he's been paying close attention to electronic voting issues and security for years. Dill's been watching a few states in particular.

“Virginia has a lot of electronic voting and in general has an election system where it’s very hard to get recounts,” says Dill. “So I might worry about Virginia, depending on how close it is. Pennsylvania is another state that I worry about, because they have a lot of electronic voting and have sometimes been in contention in the presidential race. And we shouldn’t forget about all the congressional state and local races that maybe in contention in states that don’t have voting systems.”

Dill is also founder of a group called Verified Voting, that pushes for transparency in election systems. They've been ringing the alarm about electronic voting systems because there's a security issue -- computers aren't always so great at providing proof behind the numbers.

It’s a lot easier to modify electronic records than to modify paper records which is why banking and a lot of other critical activities like that still rely on paper when there’s an ultimate disaster and electronic records are lost or corrupted.

There is some good news here. A few years ago, states adopted electronic voting before real backup counting systems had been developed. Now many electronic voting machines have ways for us to verify vote tallies. Professor Avi Rubin, at Johns Hopkins University, wrote a paper on problems with electronic voting that helped to draw attention to the issue. He says things are a lot better, but that there may be too many different varieties of electronic voting.

“There are different problems with every type of technology,” says Rubin. “The fully electronic I think is by far the worst in all respects from a security, reliability and auditability perspective. My favorite system is one where you use an electronic machine to produce a paper ballot. You can verify that it printed correctly and then put it into an optical scanner and retain the paper ballot as the vote of record.”

Here's some strange news: In New Jersey, people driven from their homes by the hurricane are being allowed to submit absentee ballots via e-mail. For storm victims with an internet connection, this may be a useful option. But we all know email can get hacked, and some election security experts believe ballots and email do not mix. Storm victims don't have to send a backup paper copy of their ballots -- a mistake, says Andrew Appel, who is the chair of the computer science department at Princeton.

“That hard copy doesn’t have to arrive by election day,” says Appel, “but when it does arrive the law says it has to be compared with the email ballot. And that provides some amount of protection against the different kinds of frauds and trickery that could be played on voters by malicious computer hackery.”

Storm or no storm, overseas military personnel can sign, scan, and send their absentee ballots by email to New Jersey, but they have to send the hard copy along as well.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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