• United States

Paper trail won’t cure e-voting ills

Sep 06, 20043 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsGovernment

I still get the occasional e-mail about a column I wrote in February about electronic voting devices, equating my support of electronic voting with a desire to see the upcoming November elections subverted in some way.

This seems to reflect a trend I’ve noticed in the mass media and among those whom I thought were reasoned advocates of technological advance. In particular, there’s the issue of the “paper trail.”

Many want electronic voting machines to spit out a paper receipt to be placed in a sealed box to be used in case a recount is needed. Fine so far, but the issue has taken on cause celebré status and I fear many believe that not only is a paper receipt necessary to ensure proper voting but also that it’s sufficient to do so. And that’s the real problem with this publicity.

There’s nothing magical about a paper receipt. To take just one scenario, suppose someone has hacked a voting terminal so that it shows, on screen, a vote for Candidate A (the one you wished to vote for) while recording it as a vote for Candidate B. How hard would it be for the hacker to also ensure that the paper receipt also indicated the vote was for Candidate A so that you felt sure your vote was counted exactly as you cast it? It’s childishly simple, as most of us know.

Aha, you say, but when the people talked among themselves and realized that the vote totals were at odds with their recollection of how they voted, a recount would be instituted and the receipts would show the proper votes! Well, yeah, provided the hackers were totally unsophisticated about how elections work. In a close presidential election in the U.S., the switch of little more than a handful of votes can change the outcome because of the method we use. It’s not necessary for the winning candidate to acquire a majority of all votes cast, just a majority in enough states to ensure that a majority of the electoral votes go to that candidate. It’s generally conceded, for example, that had a few hundred votes in very particular precincts been changed in the 1960 election, Richard Nixon and not John Kennedy would have been the 35th president of the U.S.

Paper receipts are fine, but they won’t guarantee accuracy of the vote count.

Tip of the Week

Last time out I took Novell to task over its free offer of Linux tools. Some thought I was too harsh. For more on this issue, see last week’s Focus on NetWare newsletter, which casts new light on the situation.