E-Republic or B-Republic?

by Michael Brewer

Related link: http://petition.democracyforamerica.com/verify

This week Democracy for America started a petition requesting that polling agencies require a paper trail for any electronic voting machine. This week, I also had an opportunity to speak with someone that participated in some local tests of the Diebold machines. Below is my retelling of some of the details of the local equipment and procedures. It's really quite ridiculous.

The electronic voting machines are running un-patched versions of either Windows NT 4.0 or Windows 98 on 400 to 500 Mhz PCs with 128 MBs of RAM. The machines are not networked at the polls, but instead have a floppy disk drive. They have a built in uninterruptible power supply, use a touch-screen LCD panel, and sport neither a mouse nor keyboard. There are locks on the floppy drive and power switch.

Polling uses a card that is similar to a credit card. After voting, the user is presented with an opportunity to change their votes and is even asked to confirm their vote before the card is marked as used and the votes are recorded. A standalone laptop then reprograms the card for additional use. The votes are copied from the polling PCs to the laptop by floppy and then sent to a central computer via modem.

My source also confirmed that Diebold is still using a Microsoft Access database on the polling computers and presumed that the file copied to floppy is most likely a CSV (comma separated values) file.

Just the reliance on floppy disks seems like a disaster waiting to happen. They aren't the most reliable of storage media, nor are the drives tolerant of harsh environments. Then, there's the fact that Access is used on the polling systems and the central tabulating computer. The votes and audit log can both be manipulated without a trace.

Unless you support the United States of America as a Banana Republic, be sure to sign this petition, get involved, spread the word, and explain just how flimsy current electronic voting systems are to your less technically inclined friends and family.

Do you have any additional insight into how these voting machines do or do not work? What are you doing to make sure your vote counts?


2004-05-27 14:10:26
Related resources
See also Verified Voting and EFF E-Voting.
2004-05-27 16:01:31
Related resources
Thanks for the links. I've been meaning to check out EFF's site to see if they had anything about this on their Action Center, and they do. Unfortunately, it is from last year. I do think I remember sending this letter off last year, though.
2004-05-28 15:34:33
Make it open source
There's an excellent article about an open source e-voting system in Australia, >Aussies Do It Right: E-Voting.

Making electronic voting, which should be completely transparent like any voting process IMO, open source just seems so obvious and I'm amazed that I don't see it mentioned at all in most of the articles on this topic (e-voting in the U.S.).

If it's open source and votes are digitally signed, then I think there's also 1) less of a need for a paper receipt, and 2) an easier way to do receipts if we must have them (just digitally sign the receipt the voter gets so it matches the one stored to disk).

Floppies are indeed a very fragile method of storing data; I cringe whenever I hear someone say the only copy of [important document] is on a floppy. In the Australian system linked above it sounds like they wrote votes to two disks per machine, but now that wireless networking is so pervasive and relatively cheap it might be better to just store it on a server over a wireless network for later upload.

2004-05-28 15:57:22
Make it open source
After thinking about this some more, why not have a petition to make any e-voting system open source so it's completely transparent. A petition to require a paper receipt will treat the symptom, not the problem.

As Black Box Voting page says, "The computer programs that tell electronic voting machines how to record and tally votes are allowed to be held as 'trade secrets.' Can citizen's groups examine them? No. The companies that make these machines insist that their mechanisms are a proprietary secret. Can citizen's groups, or even election officials, audit their accuracy? Not at all..."

Let's have a petition to prevent the voting process from being a "trade secret".

2004-05-31 11:48:04
Make it open source
I agree that any e-voting system should be open source. However, what I think is the problem is that government wants someone to supply them with a voting solution -- just as has been done in the past with paper systems. Unfortunately, the companies supplying e-voting solutions aren't interested in open source at all.

There are three avenues that I see for open source voting systems:

The first would be to have the federal government develop its own open source solution with or without assistance from external developers.

The second is for a group of enterprising individuals to develop open source voting software and form an organization around delivering complete solutions to county governments.

The last avenue is for citizens to gather support for state legislation that would require any computerized voting system to be fully transparent down to the source code.