E-voting – a threat to democracy?

A Diebold Direct-recording Electronic (DRE) with a Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail Printer (VVPAT) to the right. Photo: Joebeone, Wikimedia CommonsElections are an integral part of the democratic process. They are an opportunity to evaluate the policies of political parties or individuals and punish those that have failed in the eyes of the public. Therefore, securing the integrity and the ballot secrecy of the election process has long been a priority. The technological breakthroughs of the last decades have enabled the introduction of voting equipment that aims to provide the provide the above, as well as speeding up the delivery of election results. Direct-recording Electronic (DRE) is one of the most widespread forms of election equipment in the USA today and it is the sole electronic voting system used in Brazil. But is your vote really counted as it was cast and what are the threats of the electronic voting?

First of all, it is important to understand how the DRE work. A DRE operates much like a simplified computer and usually consists of a touch-screen monitor, a memory card and software. The voter does not receive an actual ballot; instead the choices of the candidates are visible on the machine’s display. This saves hundreds of trees and reduces costs associated with the printing and the transportation of the paper ballots. Furthermore, the touch-screen DRE can also be adjusted to the needs of the voter by allowing the change of the font sizes, brightness or even the language in which the machine operates. For example, the audio support, which is often installed in these machines, makes them particularly adaptable to the needs of the voters with hearing impairment enabling them to vote without assistance, thus protecting voters’ ballot secrecy. The memory card inside the DRE records the number and the choices of the voters and in the end of the election releases the information to the election officials who know the access password or have a supervisor card. The only thing left for the election officials to do is to add up the numbers. Such voting process saves the tax payers money and is believed to be much more accurate than the counting of paper ballots by the people.

Another important distinction should be made between DRE with Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail Printers (VVPAT) and DRE without it. The first one has an internal printer for printing out voting receipts which are then stored in the lockbox. The receipt is encrypted with voter ID and the voter’s choice of candidate. Before the receipt goes into the lockbox, the voter can verify whether the choices on the receipt correspond to the actual vote casted. If the choices do not correspond the voter may redo the procedure. On the other hand, simple DRE is not able to provide physical proof of voting and the information is only stored on the memory card inside the machine. The research community agrees that VVPAT plays very important role in securing the integrity of the voting process since stored records provide physical proof and can be manually recounted if an audit is called for. In the last US presidential elections, only 45,965,561 out of 111,738,186 registered voters who voted using DRE technology were given the chance to verify their votes with the help of VVPAT.

Statistics generated from http://www.verifiedvoting.org/verifier/

So what can go wrong with such an advanced technology? As it turned out many things can go wrong. In 2006 a research team from Princeton University received a donation from a private party in the form of the DRE manufactured by the market’s largest company – Diebold. Up until then Diebold would not allow any external analysis on the grounds that its software was a trade secret. The researchers concluded that the biggest danger to electronic voting is poorly engineered or malicious software: “An attacker who gets physical access to a machine or its removable memory card for as little as one minute could install malicious code; malicious code on a machine could steal votes undetectably, modifying all records, logs, and counters to be consistent with the fraudulent vote count it creates”. The same team of researchers also established that a virus can be spread from machine to machine via removable memory cards that are used to install software updates. The key to the lock, the only security measure meant to protect the memory card, could be easily bought on the internet. While the physical voter receipts provide an extra security, even they do not seem to guarantee an honest voting process. For example, malicious software can print extra voter receipts, thus jeopardizing the results. Moreover, the tape with voter receipts has to be cut after each and every vote in order to protect ballot secrecy. If the tape is not cut the votes will be saved in exactly same order as they were cast, instead of being reshuffled as with normal paper ballots inside the ballot boxes.

In sum, there are many benefits of using new technology in the election process, yet one always has to question and criticize even the most advanced technology. Companies that produce election equipment should cooperate with the research institutes in order to correct possible flaws and to develop the most secure voting methods that will protect each and every vote that is cast.


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