A Deeper Look At E-voting Reform

By Cameron
March 14, 2007

For the past few Congresses Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) has taken the lead on legislation to reform electronic voting. Each year his efforts have garnered deep support from the Democratic party, but each year the legislation stalled with no Congressional action. With the Democrats now controlling Congress, Representative Holt reintroduced his legislation — the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007 (H.R 811) — last month with high hopes that he will be able to shepherd it into law. Over the next three posts, I’ll review the goals of his legislation and speculate about its prospects and potential obstacles. One thing is clear, if you are interested an e-voting issues, this legislation is the bill to watch.

When you first read through Representative Holt’s bill two things strike you. First, it is dense with substantial detail about how he seeks to reform not only voting machines, but the entire voting system. Second, it covers a wide scope of issues dealing with election policy. For the sake of clarity, I’ve broken his proposal into five parts: reforming voting machines, reforming testing labs, funding, enforcement, and manual audits by election boards. I’m going to focus these posts on machines, testing, and audits because most interest from computing community is in these issues.

Holt’s legislation mandates that by the 2008 federal election, all voting systems must use or produce paper ballots that:

  • the voter can inspect and correct before the vote is cast,
  • preserve privacy, and;
  • are durable (i.e. capable of withstanding multiple recounts and being archived for 22 months).

Because no one can guarantee the security of a complex paperless e-voting system, there needs to be method for a voter to independently verify his or her vote. Holt’s Voter Verified Paper Ballot requirement is a critical step toward meeting this goal, but this idea isn’t new — it has always been a part of his reform efforts. What is interesting about this version of Holt’s legislation is that it would eliminate the worst implementation of paper trails we’ve seen and address some of the arguments against that have been made in the past few years.

For background, there are three basic electronic voting systems — optical scan (where a voter marks a “Scantron” like ballot feed through a machine), ballot marking (similar to optical scan but the machine marks the ballot based on your touch-screen input), and direct electronic recording (DREs) machines (which use touch screens and sometimes have a printer attached). DREs usually come in two flavors — ones that do not have any paper trail, and ones that have a thermal paper reel-to-reel printer attached as an after-market, ad-hoc addition, usually in response to state law requiring the use of paper trails.

The implementation of reel-to-reel systems as add-on printers to DREs has been poor. These systems jam, the thermal paper is damaged during recounts and can fade, and reel systems print sequential, which undermines voter privacy. Holt’s ballot requirements would likely lead to complete reengineering of the current ad-hoc printers for DREs, if not the DREs themselves.

Paper trails have been criticized by the disabled community because a blind person cannot see a paper trail and cannot verify their vote. Holt addresses this by mandating that every precinct have one machine that produces a paper ballot and allows a disabled voter to privately and independently cast and verify his or her vote. This will likely lead to integrating audio verification features or tactile ballots into voting systems.

The next major proposal is that the paper ballot produced by the machine becomes the official ballot if there is any inconsistency between the electronic and hand-counted paper ballot tallies. (The legislation creates an elaborate manual recount process, which I’ll touch on in the next post.) Making the paper trail produced by DREs the official ballot has been a controversial issue. Last year, the Election Science Institute published a study showing that paper trails had a failure rate of about 10 percent — meaning an official recount based on paper trails would be impossible. These failures — printer jams, missing and torn paper, blank spaces — were directly linked to the ad-on thermal paper reel system. As previously mentioned, Holt’s legislation addresses each of these issues. These reforms clearly strengthen the case for making the paper ballot the official ballot.

Finally, the bill goes into depth to address several security and transparency issues that have troubled the computing community. First, it requires source code disclosure as a condition for federal certification. Second, it prohibits wireless technology and connectivity to the Internet. Third, it creates a new set of physical security requirements including chain of custody for the machines and secure storage of the machines. There are some troubling proposals, including a wide-ranging background check on developers and a prohibition on updates to the source code, but these are comparatively minor issues given the scope of proposed reforms.

Clearly this legislation seeks a much-needed and major overhaul of electronic voting machines, but Holt’s legislation doesn’t stop there. It also deals with other aspects of the voting system including testing labs and auditing, which I’ll discuss in my next post.