by Teresa Hommel

December 23, 2005





Computers are not a trustworthy voting technology. Computers conceal the recording, casting, storage, handling and counting of votes. They are a "trust me" mechanism, which is inappropriate in a democracy.


1. You are a conspiracy theorist.


Please do not argue that people cheated in the past with paper ballots and lever machines, and will cheat in the future with paper ballots and optical scanners, but if we get DRE (“Direct Recording Electronic”) touchscreens everyone will be a saint.


Given the opportunity to tamper with votes and tallies with little effort and no possibility of detection, some people will tamper -- but we will not be able to detect it without a complete count of the votes on the voter-verified paper record.


2. People trusted lever machines, which also concealed vote handling.


a. Computers are self-changing.


Lever machines are mechanical, and cannot change themselves.  Once they are "programmed" for an election with the little metal parts put into place, they can't move their own parts around and change their own programming. In contrast, computer programming is changeable. Once computers are programmed for an election and have been checked out by the candidates, their programming, votes and tallies can be changed in seconds. This can occur without human intervention, due to programming errors or malicious programming already in the computer.


(A few years ago, when computers were smaller and many programs were too big to fit into the computer, it was a common practice to divide big programs into smaller parts which changed themselves, taking turns to run the computer.)


b. Computers don't require tamperers to be physically present.


Tamperers have to gain physical access to lever machines to reprogram or break them; thus the machines can easily be kept secure by being watched and guarded. In contrast, computers can be reprogrammed, and their votes, ballots, and tallies can be modified, both by anyone who has physical access to them AND by insiders and outside hackers located anywhere in the world, via the computer's communication capability.  Thus computers cannot be kept secure except by technical experts who monitor them continuously with other computers -- as is done by financial institutions and other companies whose work offers hackers an attractive target. No Board of Elections is planning such monitoring, which would be prohibitively expensive for personnel, time, and equipment.


c. Computers can be tampered with in seconds.


Tamperers have to have many hours of access to lever machines to reprogram them. Computers can be reprogrammed, and their votes, ballots and tallies altered, in seconds.


3. I trust them.


Surely it is comforting for you personally to feel trust, but that does not make the computers trustworthy.


Many a trusting husband or wife can tell you that trust can be misplaced.


Ronald Reagan said, "Trust but verify."


4. We trust computers in other areas of our life, such as ATMs and airplane navigational systems.


In every other use, the computer system has been designed so that people can independently verify (confirm) that the computer is working correctly. Before an ATM gives you money it has checked your information with your bank, photographed you, and kept a printed record inside the ATM of your transaction -- and at the end of the month you get a printed statement. As long as the ATM-receipt printer is working, you personally have "end to end" personal confirmation of your transaction via your receipt and your billing statement. If the internal printer that keeps a continuous record of transactions breaks, the ATM shuts down.  In spite of massive security cross-checks, banks normally lose several million per year through their ATMs, which is written off as a cost of doing business.


Airplanes have pilots.


When you use Microsoft Word to create a document, you look at your printed result and would see errors if it printed something different from what was on your computer screen.  Programs like Word have been verified billions of times, corrected tens of thousands of times, yet still have errors.


5. But we need computers for voting because no other mechanism will be HAVA compliant.


Many states have complied with HAVA via paper ballots, optical scanners, and accessible ballot-marking devices for voters with special needs.


6. But we need computers because they are accessible.


The Automark and Vote-PAD ballot-marking devices are more accessible than any electronic voting system at this time.


Accessible devices that would enable voters with disabilities and minority languages to vote privately and independently have been available for more than 25 years. Major vendors have made a political decision not to make such devices available with lever machines. Major vendors have made a political decision to design and build DRE voting machines that cannot be verified (those that lack a voter-verifiable paper printout) and that are actually not accessible.


7. But we need computers because they give fast election-night results.


Precinct-based optical scanners provide election-night results just as fast -- but even if they didn't, speedy results are not as important as election legitimacy.


8. But we need computers because they are modern.


Space shuttles are modern too, but the Challenger blew up because no one listened to the O-ring engineers who said that the O-rings would not hold due to the cold temperature.


When you use technology you need to be aware of both its strength and weaknesses, and use it correctly. That is why it should be a red flag signaling us that something is wrong when Boards of Election listen to vendor salespeople who say "trust us, you can run secure elections without knowing anything about computers" and refuse to listen to the thousands of computer professionals who say, this is a disaster in the making for our democracy.