Teresa Hommel,  June 26, 2005



Paper Ballot Concepts In a Computerized World

Time, Access to equipment, Observation, Evidence

– They won’t mean what they used to



Once a paper ballot is marked, you have to get your hands on it to tamper with it – spoil the ballot by making stray marks with a pencil, erase some votes, replace one ballot with another. Once paper ballots are in the ballot box, you have to stick your hand in the box to grab the ballots, or steal or replace the whole box.


If enough election observers are watching the ballot boxes, they’ll prevent tampering, or catch a culprit in the act.


Once a lever voting machine is programmed for an election, you have to break into the warehouse, cut the seals on the machine, and spend hours using specialized tools to change its programming.


But if the seals have been cut, or the programming is changed, an inspector would notice, and a technician can simply look at the innards and see that it has been tampered with.


Computers – and computerized voting -- are a different world. Time, access to ballots and equipment, observers, and evidence don’t mean the same thing.


With modern communications technology, a wrongdoer in a far-away location can change the programming, votes, and tallies in our computerized voting equipment. He doesn’t have to set foot in our local polling places or voting machine warehouse. He could be in another country. Our election observers won’t see him or what he’s doing.


Tampering with hundreds of paper ballots might take minutes or hours, and tampering with hundreds of lever machines might take months. To perform the equivalent with electronic votes, tallies, or machines could take fractions of a second, faster than an election observer can blink an eye. And electronic tampering can be done without leaving a trace. No fingerprints, for sure.


Electronic voting software can change itself, as well as ballots and tallies. Changes can be made again and again, all of them undetectable – because the fraudulent programming can erase its own bad parts after it finishes its tasks. Our Board of Elections might hire a team of computer scientists to look for this kind of fraudulent programming, but it’s hard to find, and harder to find it all. These computer pros could study the software for years and still not find all the problems with it.


How can our Boards of Elections fulfill their responsibility to conduct and oversee our elections when they won’t be in control of their own equipment, and our election observers can’t observe what is going on? The short answer is, they -- and we -- can’t.


New York’s proposed new law for election modernization has security requirements, but they apply paper ballot concepts to computers, and they won’t prevent electronic election fraud.


1. “Certification” of electronic voting equipment is required, which means review and testing of features. Maybe feature-centered tests with lever machines can reveal all problems -- even with their more than 20,000 parts, lever machines are still vastly simpler than computers. A feature-centered process with computerized voting systems tests perhaps 10% of the programming. The hundreds of documented failures of evoting systems in recent years prove that certification does not mean a voting system works. As soon as a ballot design or a voter’s combination of votes makes use of unreviewed programming, you can experience “glitches” -- loss or switching of votes, undisplayed races, refusal to register votes, freezing screens, etc.


2. A Citizens’ Advisory Committee will be formed, but it probably will not review more than usability and accessibility features of our new evote systems. The proposed law does not require CPAs, computer auditors, computer professionals, or computer scientists on the committee.


3. The proposed law requires voters to have an opportunity to verify and change their votes before the ballot is cast. Regrettably this only refers to the screen display and the paper printout of the voter’s choices (the voter-verifiable paper ballot, or VVPB). The proposed law assumes that the invisible, electronic ballot in the computer is the same as what is displayed on the screen and what is printed on the VVPB. If you voted on a simple paper ballot with a pencil (or a ballot-marking machine for voters with special needs), you wouldn’t have three potentially-different versions of your ballot. If the VVPB were the ballot of record, it wouldn’t matter if the screen and the electronic ballot were wrong, or if the electronic ballot was falsified just after you press the “OK” button. This is because what you verify on paper is what would be counted, and the paper can’t change itself and observers can prevent a wrongdoer from tampering with it. But our proposed new law makes the electronic ballot the ballot of record, even though no one can verify or observe it, but a wrongdoer in some remote place can modify it at his leisure after it is cast.


 4. Evoting machines will have a protective counter which records the number of times the machine has been operated since it was built, and a public counter which records the number voters in each separate election. Electronic counters can be changed, like everything else recorded electronically.


5. Electronic voting machines will have locks so that when the polls are closed no one can record additional votes -- except the wrongdoer in the remote location, who can do whatever he wants.


6. Electronic voting machines will have some means for securing votes already cast if the machine malfunctions. But electronic votes are never secure, even when the machine appears to function.


7. Electronic voting machines must not contain wireless or internet communications devices, so our wrongdoer will have to use telephone lines and modems, or some of the new communications technologies now being developed. However, since expert technical inspections are not mandated or funded, a little wireless communications component would probably go unnoticed.


8. The proposed law requires vendors to submit a copy of their software for escrow, to be examined under court supervision in case of litigation. But since no one can control what software is in the machine during elections, escrow software may be of little use in an investigation of irregularities.


Electronic voting surely brings us into a topsy-turvy world, and our law and our Boards of Elections aren’t ready for it. Citizen activists are pushing for adoption of an alternative technology that our proposed new law allows, paper ballots with optical scanners and ballot-marking devices for voters with special needs. The advantage of paper ballots is that everyone understands how they work. Observers can observe. The ballots won’t change while they sit in a ballot box. Wrongdoers would need to show up personally to get their hands on the ballots, and we could catch them at it. No one could falsify an entire state election in a few nanoseconds. We should go with the paper ballots.