Pull the Plug on E-Voting

From: Kathy Dopp <kathy_dot_dopp_at_gmail_dot_com>
Date: Thu Oct 26 2006 - 03:11:25 CDT

Despite Bruce O'Dell and I having had a parting of the ways a long time ago
(because he still posts articles mischaracterizing what Ron Baiman and I say
in our papers and then attacks the statements he incorrectly puts in our
mouths (to make Ron and I sound like idiots and himself sound smart I
presume - but we tend to agree, if fact were told, on the things O'Dell
mischaracterizes us in), and O'Dell sides with Liddle and Lindeman who still
devote themselves to endless seductive but incorrect attacks (sophistry)
against anyone using exit polls to guage election outcome integrity (See
a short list - of Liddle/Lindeman's incorrect use of mathematics),...
Anyway, despite all that, this op-ed article (below) that O'Dell wrote on
e-voting is one of the best, if not the best, articles I have ever seen
explaining the fundamental difficulties of securing e-voting, in a way that
laymen could grasp. Although some computer scientists won't like O'Dell's
article, IMO it is flawless and hits the core truth about e-voting. There
are ways to independently verify open source programming code by comparing
the executables byte for byte using a duplicate system with exactly the same
hardware and drivers. However, it is too complex, time-consuming, and
expensive to apply effectively in the elections industry. (Although open
source is still preferable because it is more secure and efficient.) I
highly recommend this article by O'Dell, and hope its Part 2 will be as

*October 25, 2006 at 14:55:46*

Pull the Plug on

*by Bruce O'Dell <http://www.opednews.com/author/author2498.html>*


Pull the plug on e-Voting

Part 1 of 2

The FBI is investigating the "possible theft" of the Diebold touch screen
voting software in Maryland. Excuse me... but I fail to see what all the
fuss is about. I certainly don't condone theft; it's just that I don't
understand why anyone would bother with stealing the Diebold source code -
or why anyone would take the time to read it.

Don't get me wrong: I've spent twenty five years in the financial services
industry helping to protect billions of dollars of other people's money. I
designed internet security services as an employee of American Express to
protect the online financial identities of hundreds of thousands of people,
and recently spent a year at one of the twenty largest companies in America
as chief architect of a project to replace the foundation of all their
internal and external security systems. I understand risks from thieves and
embezzlers - I've designed financial audit and control systems. In the world
I work in, there's no room for excuses.

Source code is irrelevant

I'll let you in on a dirty little secret of the computing profession: in the
real world, there's simply no way to ensure that any program alleged to be
written by Programmer Bob on June 24th bears any relationship whatsoever to
what actually runs on computer "X" thousands of miles away on November 7th.
Even if Programmer Bob's corporate public relations and sales reps swear up
and down that it must be so.

When it comes to security, source code is irrelevant. The actual behavior of
a computer at point of use is the only thing that matters. Yet many of my IT
colleagues continue to believe that it is somehow possible to look at a
vendor's source code and determine what a particular voting computer will
actually do in a precinct or county election office during an election. This
seems to be the rationale behind "open source voting": if I can see the
program is benevolent, then must be safe to use. Sounds plausible. But in
reality any computer academic or professional practitioner who tells you
that anyone on earth can determine whether a vote tabulation system is
secure and accurate simply by looking at a source code document... is either
ill-informed or lying.

Consider Microsoft's Windows XP operating system. As a critically-important
widely-used program nevertheless riddled with bugs and security holes, this
is a particularly apt comparison to voting software. Even if I could obtain
a copy of the current Windows XP source code and read its millions of lines
of text in its entirety with perfect comprehension, the act of reading the
program text tells me precisely nothing at all about the integrity and
security of any of the hundreds of millions of computers running Windows XP
all around the world.

Think about it. Some surveys indicate 70% or more of Windows PCs are
infested with viruses, spyware or, worst of all, rootkits. Rootkits hijack
precisely those portions of the operating system that are used to detect the
presence of malicious software and in so doing so become effectively
undetectable. Can looking at the source code version of Windows XP tell me
whether your particular PC is echoing all your keystrokes to a server owner
by the Russian mob while you're innocently doing your online banking?

Software is inherently untrustworthy...

How do so many of my colleagues get such a fundamental issue so wrong?
Although computer technology can seem endlessly complex, the fundamental
issues are simple enough.

Computer program "source code" is just a text document. It's written using a
word processor in a highly specialized dialect that is a shorthand mishmash
of English words and math symbols. In order to get a computer to do my
bidding, I first edit and save a text file, then run other programs (called
"compilers" or "interpreters") to convert my human-readable text into the
binary electrical impulses that a computer can understand and execute.

Here's where it becomes one twisty hall of mirrors. All means of verifying
the version and features of any program as it is running in a computer
require use of other software, the version and features of which in turn are
verified by use of other software, the version and features of which in turn
is verified by other software... and so on. Software alone can't vouch for
software. It is a very well-known maxim in my profession that the only way
to truly know what is running in a computer at any given time is to present
all the inputs, record all the outputs, and verify that the two match up as

All computer systems which process high-value transactions include audit
mechanisms that monitor the advertised features of the system to enable an
independent means of detecting flawed or fraudulent program logic... uh,
everywhere that is except for voting systems, which arguably process the
most important transactions of all. Go figure.

I'm so tired of hearing e-voting compared to using an Automated Teller
Machine. Voting could not be more different than using an ATM. ATMs ask for
not one but two forms of identification - a bank card and a PIN. Whereas the
act of voting is private and anonymous. "Private, anonymous banking" is just
another way to say "robbery in progress" - as in sawing open the ATM and
taking its cash. ATMs exchange transaction and audit records with multiple
counterparties and offer the user a receipt. Some but not all e-Voting
systems may create or scan a paper vote record, but the voter surely can't
keep it, or votes could be coerced or sold. e-Voting machines and ATMs are
truly "apples and bicycles".

When it comes to electronic voting, we can't use any of the techniques we
apply to securing electronic financial transactions all of which are
predicated on the strong proofs of identity and exchange of transaction data
with multiple counterparties that are rightfully banned in voting systems.
Voting systems are national security systems demanding a much higher
standard of protection than mere financial systems.

...yet the behavior of voting software is allowed to go unaudited

Many voting systems provide only an internal electronic audit trail of
electronic vote tallies. What foolishness to allow programs to vouch for
programs in such a way; as if it is somehow impossible to make two programs
lie consistently!

Rep. Rush Holt's HR 550 legislation and its supporters in the academic
computer science community are trying to salvage computerized voting by
requiring that e-Voting touch-screen equipment always produce a
"voter-verified paper audit trail" (VVPAT). This is a kind of receipt which
in theory could be audited sometime after an election if the official
results were contested. Setting aside the chain of custody problem - as soon
as paper leaves the room, it is potentially compromised - when it comes to
observing voters actually verifying their paper audit trail, the results are

A 2005 study by the Caltech-MIT Voting Project concluded the following: " no
errors were reported in our post-survey data ... ... and over 60 percent of
participants indicated that they were not sure if the paper trail contained
errors." That's right: in test elections full of deliberately engineered
VVPAT errors - including swapped votes and even missing races - no one
reported a VVPAT error while voting, a majority were unsure wtether there
were any errors or not, and almost a third of the participants continued to
insist that there no errors at all even after they were told otherwise by
those who switched the votes!

But even that subset of touch screen voting systems with some kind of
voter-verified paper trail, and optical scan systems that could in theory be
audited ... in practice, are not. Certainly not by the standards of the
financial services industry.

HR 550 was regarded as something of a revolutionary breakthrough in voting
accountability simply by requiring a random audit of 2% of precincts after
the fact. Under the Sarbanes-Oxley financial accountability law passed in
the wake of the Enron scandal in 2002, the board of directors of any public
company foolish enough to apply the same standard of auditability to their
own books now have personal criminal liability for their decisions and so
would face prison time for approving such a threadbare scheme.

But apparently when it comes to elections, no standard of protection is too

Voting by computer considered harmful

There was a remarkable article published by the Computer Professionals for
Social Responsibility in 2001, citing work by the Caltech-MIT Voting Project

"...our best efforts applying computer technology have decreased the
accuracy of elections, to the point where the true outcomes of many races
are unknowable. Many technologists and technology enthusiasts will read the
above words and refuse to believe them. 'There must be some other
explanation,' they will say. 'Nothing has been proven,' they will say.
'Future technology will be better,' they will say. But there is no other
plausible explanation: new technology may have reduced the cost of
elections, and certainly has increased counting speed, but the above results
show no statistically significant progress in elections accuracy over people
counting paper ballots, one at a time, by hand."

Let me recap: voting by computer may be inherently untrustworthy and in
practice poorly crafted, overpriced, prone to breakdowns and wide open to
subversion - but at least it's less accurate than counting by hand.

Here's an indictment of the IT profession, and a fine irony: the degree of
independent hand-auditing of paper ballot records sufficient to verify the
corresponding computerized vote tallies is comparable to the effort required
to more accurately count all the ballots by hand in the first place,
dispensing with the machines. But until that day arrives, the programs that
the voting vendors actually distribute - as opposed to the software they may
say they distribute - will continue to determine who takes power after the
votes are tallied.

(Continued in Part 2)

Bruce O'Dell is a self-employed information technology consultant with more
than twenty five years experience who applies his broad technical expertise
to his work as an election integrity activist. He lives just outside
Minneapolis, Minnesota, and shares a love of good books with his wife - and
her beautiful garden, with their talkative cat.

Kathy Dopp
National Election Data Archive
Dedicated to Accurately Counting Elections
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"Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and
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