Experts are debating whether new electronic voting systems contain secure, reliable software, whether local election officials have the technical competence to run them and whether they should produce paper records of votes cast.
Washington Post staff writer Dan Keating discussed electronic voting with washingtonpost.com staff writer Robert MacMillan and took your questions. A transcript follows.
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___Tech Policy/Security E-letter___ Written by washingtonpost.com's tech policy team, the e-mail version of this weekly feature includes an original news article and links to policy and cyber-security stories from the previous week.
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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Good afternoon and welcome to our Live Online session with Washington Post reporter Dan Keating. I'm Robert MacMillan, washingtonpost.com's technology policy editor, and we're ready to take your questions about one of the most critical issues facing voters on Election Day next week.
Dan - Can you bring us up to speed with a condensed version of what the controversy is that surrounds "electronic voting?"
Dan Keating: It can easily be condensed to one word: trust.
Some people trust the new technology because it's new and it's technology and the people who run it say it works great. They like that there's no paper to hassle with and no need to recount anything.
Some people feel they need proof that it hasn't been corrupted or misdirected by an error. They want a backup system.
Florence Township, N.J.:
What safeguards are in place to keep hackers from tampering with the vote count? Are there any universal safeguards? How can I know if the vote I cast is the one that gets counted?
Dan Keating: The secret ballot makes it very difficult to every trace between what you cast and what got counted. There have been technological proposals to use an encrypted code to connect ballots cast to what got counted. Technically they make sense, but I fear that are way too complicated for most people to use or understand.
The safeguards that hat exist now are that the machine has an audit log that shows that it started with zero, that it recorded a certain number of votes and that it resulted in certain totals. Then those totals are compared in an after-election audit to make sure the totals were collected correctly.
So how hard would it be to steal an election involving paperless touch-screen voting, and how would anyone know the election had been stolen?
Dan Keating: There are lots of theoretical ways to steal it -- mostly involving hidden software in the machines. The hidden software, also called a Trojan Horse, would steal votes so when you picked A it would count a vote for B. The thing is that every jurisdiction programs the individual candidate assignments. Many jurisdictions have to set up many separate ballots because people in different districts vote for different congressional representatives, etc.
On the back end, a hacker could change the totals. That could be defeated by checking the results at each machine against the totals that are collected.
If it were done perfectly, no one would know. There are many policies and procedures in place that are intended to catch any attempt at vote fraud.
If there is evidence of tampering in particular counties or precincts and no paper trail to recount, is there any precedent or provision for a revote in those counties?
Dan Keating: When intentional fraud or massive error has been detected, local elections have been thrown out or re-run.
It's much more complicated when fraud is located in one part of a national election. One fallback we saw four years ago was that the Constitution grants the Legislature the right to determine how electoral votes are distributed, so the Legislature could play a role in determining a state's outcome. I'll leave it up to you whether you consider that a safeguard or a threat.
South Bend, Ind.:
It's bad enough that many of the officials in charge of running our elections are appointed or elected under a partisan banner. But what confidence can we have in our elections if the results are produced by an unverifiable, non-transparent computer ballot? I'm not a conspiracy theorist and I don't say that the 2000 election was "stolen", but the mere fact that one party has been almost unified against a paper trail for computer voting troubles me very much.
Dan Keating: I agree that partisan behavior by election officials undermines the legitimacy of the election. I say it's like walking out to start a soccer or basketball game and the ref is wearing one team's jersey -- the fix is in!
On the other hand, positions on paper trail are not entirely one side of the other. Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) tried to get paper trail in HAVA because of a life experience with recounts. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) is one of the HAVA architects who has resisted the paper trail.
As I wrote this summer, though, the Dems talk about it a lot more because they see it as a great way to whip up enthusiasm in the base.
HAVA = Help America Vote Act. That's the bill that authorized billions in funding for states to modernize their voting systems over the next couple of years.
I recently went through training to be an Election officer. The City of Alexandria uses a machine that has a wheel for selecting various options, as opposed to touch screens. It was their view that touchscreens aren't as accurate in determining what you put your finger on to select. Can you comment on this and what effect it might have on the rest of the country who might be using touch screens?
Alexandria uses the eSlate machine made by Hart InterCivic of Austin, Texas.
Dan Keating: Touchscreens can have "calibration" issues. It has been reported in various jurisdictions. You push Candidate A and it records for Candidate B. The good thing is that it TELLS YOU that it's recording for Candidate B and it's reproducible, so the voter can see the error and the machine can be taken out of service.