Book review: Broken Ballots

Book review: Broken Ballots

Summary: Few people — the security expert Rebecca Mercuri being the notable exception — thought much about the mechanics of voting before the Bush-versus-Gore presidential election in 2000. A few weeks of watching diligent poll workers holding up ballots to look for hanging chads changed all that.

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Few people — the security expert Rebecca Mercuri being the notable exception — thought much about the mechanics of voting before the Bush-versus-Gore presidential election in 2000. A few weeks of watching diligent poll workers holding up ballots to look for hanging chads changed all that. The timing — coincidental with both the rise of the internet and the dot-com bust — suddenly put voting technology on everyone's agenda.

The UK, like a number of European countries, had a brief flirtation with electronic voting. Notably, the Netherlands reverted to pencil-and-paper after a group of technical experts proved their point by getting the voting machines to play chess. E-counting is still on the UK's agenda, however, despite objections from the Open Rights Group on technical and cost grounds. Most recently, it was used in London's May 2012 mayoral elections. In the US, Bush v. Gore led to the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which mandated the updating of voting equipment and set off substantial controversy.

Broken Ballots

A number of earlier books have examined computer-based voting and concluded that it's a supremely bad idea. Primarily, these have focused on explaining the basic security issues and the contemporary context for the popular market. In Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count?, Douglas W. Jones, a computer scientist at the University of Iowa, and Barbara Simons, a retired IBM research scientist and former president of the Association for Computing Machinery, have written the book that's really needed: a comprehensive historical and technical account of just why it's dangerous to place the control of our democracy in the hands of a few technology vendors. It doesn't make for exactly light reading, and it's definitely a US-centric account, but as a worked example of the interactions among technology, policy and security it can't be beaten.

Most of the details of how voting is managed now are in response to some previous fraud. The US's love for anonymous voting, for example — which complicates the technology enormously — is to ensure that votes can't be bought or bullied. Those shots of hanging chads might have worked to convince people of the importance of the ability to audit elections. Instead, coupled with HAVA, they inspired a fundamental controversy over voting system design: should the machines produce printed paper ballots that voters could verify and that could be recounted? In a curious twist, voter-verified ballots became the subject of protests from disability activists, who argued that paper-based verification discriminated against the blind.

This book recounts all that, and goes into the detail of the security issues inherent in this technology. We may not need all this information right now, but bad policies have a way of resurfacing. As Jones and Simons remind us at the beginning of this book, one of the first lessons learned about voting was that the only way to ensure fair and accurate elections is to ensure the people running them cannot commit fraud. Boss Tweed, the famed manipulator of New York municipal elections summed it up in 1871: "As long as I count the votes, what are you going to do about it?"

Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count?
By Douglas W. Jones and Barbara Simons
University of Chicago Press
445p
ISBN: 978-1-57586-636-9
£19.50

Topics: Security, Reviews, After Hours

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  • The problems with electronic voting are just a symptom

    Of the greater problem of securely locking down any computerized system these days. One of the most notorious and widely used voting machines were/are the Diebold AccuVote-TS and AccuVote-TSx. In relation to your basic PC or tablet these days, they are not exactly state of the art, complex devices, yet suffer from highly exploitable design and an unacceptably high real-life MTBFs (you might find a report or two about all this on the Internet if you look.) In a way, they represent the type of technology being used generally behind the scenes in infrastructural environments: kludgy hardware and software systems concocted under government contracts by companies who would perish quickly in the cutthroat, open retail marketplace. They survive if not thrive, though, in the much more shadowy government contractor ecosphere, where being well-connected is far more important than designing well.
    JustCallMeBC
  • Nobody's that good

    It is sobering to realize that even if there had been a fraud-free, six-sigma vote processing system in place throughout the U.S. in 2000, the errors would still have been roughly equal to the number of votes that separated Bush and Gore in Florida. We humans do not know how to build systems with the kind of defect-free performance that people expect when counting ballots.
    Robert Hahn