Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

E-voting: our long national nightmare is almost over?

Posted by metaphorical on 4 January 2007

The NY Times is reporting today that the Federal Election Commission has “barred” one of the leading testing services of electronic voting equipment.

U.S. Bars Lab From Testing Electronic Voting

A laboratory that has tested most of the nation’s electronic voting systems has been temporarily barred from approving new machines after federal officials found that it was not following its quality-control procedures and could not document that it was conducting all the required tests.

The company, Ciber Inc. of Greenwood Village, Colo., has also come under fire from analysts hired by New York State over its plans to test new voting machines for the state. New York could eventually spend $200 million to replace its aging lever devices.

The article seem to say that the FEC withheld certifying Ciber when the issue came up this summer.

The commission acted last summer, but the problem was not disclosed then. Officials at the commission and Ciber confirmed the action in recent interviews….

Until recently, the laboratories that test voting software and hardware have operated without federal scrutiny. Even though Washington and the states have spent billions to install the new technologies, the machine manufacturers have always paid for the tests that assess how well they work, and little has been disclosed about any flaws that were discovered.

As soon as federal officials began a new oversight program in July, they detected the problems with Ciber. The commission held up its application for interim accreditation, thus barring Ciber from approving new voting systems in most states.

That makes it sound like the FEC knew over the summer that Ciber’s certifications weren’t worth the electrons they were written with, but didn’t mention it to the states that used machines certified by Ciber in their November elections—certifications that in most cases were required by state law.

It’s astonishing how long it’s taking federal and state election officials—and the public—to see that the e-voting emperor has no clothes.

The sequence of events goes all the way back to 2000. Florida’s election then was a disaster for a dozen reasons, one of them being the convoluted paper ballots used. Despite the fact that paper ballots were used successfully in literally hundreds of other jurisdictions, the federal government jumps in and encourages a shift to electronic machines with billions of dollars in funding. It provides no usable standards or guidelines. It doesn’t certify manufacturers, and it doesn’t certify any entities that could certify manufacturers.

Manufacturers jump into the fray with a bunch of untried, untested wholly electronic, easily hacked machines that have no way to recount an election, using proprietary, private software with, in most cases, the most minimal security safeguards.

States exercise equally minimal oversight by requiring e-voting vendors to get their machines certified, by someone, somehow, leaving the foxes free to hire the henhouse guards. The vendors then announce that the henhouse is secure, releasing no details. The analogy breaks down here, because at least hens can be counted and if there are any missing, we can blame the guards. Fast-forward to Florida’s 2006 election and in the 13th District, thousands of thousands of votes seem to be missing, though no one can account for, well, anything.

At a minimum, an e-voting system should have these properties.

  • The software should be open to inspection, preferably open-source.

  • The software should work independently of the operating system layer, so that defects and insecurities at the OS level don’t make elections insecure.

  • The election should be auditable and the results re-countable.

  • It should be easy for election officials, election volunteers, and voters to use the hardware and software.

  • The system should be simple, or at least straightforward, enough that voters are confident that elections are fair, secure, uncorruptible, and accurate.

There’s at least one strong candidate for meeting at least most of these conditions. I wrote about it here. More are on the way. This isn’t really that complicated, if we just acknowledge the problems and demand that they be solved. Meanwhile, some states are simply demanding paper-based systems, and others, like New York, are getting serious about testing and certification.

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