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August 4, 2003

Vote Early, Vote Often

In the wake of the Florida Debacle of November 2000, there has been a headlong rush to replace paper ballots with electronic voting. Unfortunately, what passes for security among the manufacturers of such systems is a “Trust us, our super-secret hardware has never failed yet!”

Eric Rescorla discusses [tip 'o the hat to Ed Felten for the link] the recent Johns Hopkins report on Diebold’s voting machines (widely deployed in Maryland and elsewhere) and Diebold’s lame response.

The JHU researchers found a large number of vulnerabilities, but I’d like to focus on what I think is one of the most serious ones: multiple voting. According to the article the system uses smartcards to identify voters to the voting machines. However, multiple voting is prevented by having the machine tell the card to set an “I’ve already voted” bit. Accordingly, if you were able to make multiple copies of a smartcard or a smartcard that ignored that signal you could vote as many times as you wanted.

Hacking smartcards (a well-established, and very sophisticated sport) sure beats registering dead people to vote.

It’s not surprising that State Election Officials remain enamoured of the devices. The worst possible outcome from their point of view is a scandal like the one that erupted around Katherine Harris and the Florida election results. Without the pesky “paper trail” of actual physical ballots — hanging chads 'n all — it’s a lot harder for that to happen. In the brave new world of all-electronic voting, even massive voting irregularities, through equipment failure or through hacks like the ones described in the JHU report, would likely go undetected. Which, alas, suits the interests of election officials better than it does the cause of democracy.

Posted by distler at August 4, 2003 2:30 AM

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Re: Vote Early, Vote Often

I had been hoping that the Florida debacle would quash electronic voting for at least half a generation. Not only was I totally wrong on that, but electronic voting’s big brother, Internet voting, is making a comeback.

Of course, you don’t need e-voting to screw things up. In about a month, we here in cash-strapped California are going to be taking an emergency vote on a ballot with several hundred yet-to-be-finalized candidates. Fraud, confusion, and irregularities in Florida… feh! Amateurs.

Posted by: Evan on August 6, 2003 2:06 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

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