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Divergent views of e-voting

Aug 09, 20044 mins

Electronic voting machines scare the bejesus out of IT security experts, while the general populace finds them no more threatening than an automated teller machine. If nothing is done to quell the concerns of the first group before the November presidential election, the second group might come to rue its misguided confidence in such technology.

That’s the essence of a two-pronged survey conducted by the Ponemon Institute , a research outfit affiliated with Carnegie Mellon and the International Association of Privacy Professionals. The authors sought to compare “expert” attitudes about e-voting with prevailing “public” sentiment in the midst of a roiling nationwide debate about the increased use of touchscreen balloting machines that create no verifiable paper trail. It’s important to note that the public portion of the survey polled about 3,000 individuals and was conducted using scientific methods, while the expert sample was just that, a sample culled from questioning 100 attendees at the 2004 Black Hat and DefCon conferences. Nevertheless, the two sets of findings offer a stark and alarming contrast:

• 75% of the public has confidence or significant confidence in e-voting, while 81% of the experts have none or little.

• 79% of the public believes e-voting is as likely or more likely to accurately record and report their votes as paper ballots, while half of the experts see e-voting as less likely to be accurate.

• Half of the public respondents consider e-voting to be more or much more secure than paper, whereas 83% of the experts say it’s less or much less so.

• More than half of the experts expressed concern about system and programming errors and/or attempts to rig an election that’s conducted via e-voting, while less than one-quarter of the public registered similar concerns.

What we have here is a failure to communicate; specifically, a failure on the part of those who know better to communicate their fears to those who don’t. On the one hand, it’s not exactly a revelation that many among us presume technology to be unrealistically reliable, if not infallible. Nor is it a surprise that those who do understand its limitations would be more concerned about e-voting than those who don’t.

What matters most is what if anything is going to be done about it. So far, the answer looks to be not much, at least among the political class that holds the power to insist on the proper back-up mechanisms as more election officials in more states turn to touchscreen technology.

Which isn’t to say no one is acting. While a majority of the public might be sanguine about e-voting, many who hold the more realistic view are taking matters into their own hands to ensure that their votes actually get recorded and counted: They’re applying for absentee ballots. Florida’s Palm Beach County has received more than 15,000 requests for absentee ballots for an Aug. 31 primary election, three times more than were sought four years ago. They’re expecting 125,000 absentee votes in November, up from 47,000 in 2000.

It’s a pity that people have to go that far – in part because absentee ballots present their own set of problems – but who can blame them . . . especially in Florida, where election officials were forced to admit recently that they had lost electronic records of a 2002 gubernatorial primary election that was decided by a few hundred votes.

Citizens wouldn’t be tempted to go that far if only their elected leaders would do what they should have done from the start: Insist that touch-screen voting machines produce a paper trail that would assure voters that their intentions were accurately recorded and provide the mechanism for a recount if necessary.

One final point: What’s up with the roughly one in five “experts” polled by Ponemon who apparently share few if any of their colleagues’ concerns about e-voting? They might be right, of course . . . but they aren’t.

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