With the presidential election less than a month away, and with market volatility at levels that are unprecedented for generations, we can all hope that November 4 generates an unambiguous result, at least for the presidential race. In the aftermath of the 2000 election debacle, we all share the additional hope that each of our votes will be accurately counted.
During 2007, two speakers in our Lunch ‘n Learn series summarized the inherent difficulties of current vote-tabulating technologies. J. Alex Halderman described the efforts of Princeton researchers to examine several widely used electronic voting systems. In the wake of that analysis, which discovered that the machines were susceptible to attacks that could alter election results, Computer Scientist Andrew Appel spoke of the need for Voter-Verifiable paper ballots and random hand audits of selected precincts.
In the wake of the 2000 Florida recount debacle, many states turned to computer voting machines to increase election accuracy and security. Many computer scientists have long been skeptical of such machines, but only recently have researchers had access to them for study. At the October 24 Lunch’n Learn seminar, J. Alex Halderman, a PhD candidate in the department of computer science, described how he and his colleagues (Joe Calandrino, Ari Feldman, and Halderman’s adviser Ed Felten) examined several widely used electronic voting systems and discovered that they were susceptible to attacks that could alter election results and compromise the secrecy of the ballot.
In spite of these problems, Halderman contended that computers have the potential to make elections more secure. He concluded that new computer-assisted auditing techniques developed at Princeton can significantly reduce the costs of election security.
In response to the 2000 election debacle, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, a $3.9B legislative package designed to help states upgrade voting machines by November 2006. As a result, many states embraced direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines that store voting results in the machine’s memory. But these machines are inherently computers are just as susceptible to bugs, viruses, and attacks.
Princeton University Computer Science Professor Andrew Appel summarized the inherent difficulties of voting technologies and pressed for a solution, the need for Voter-Verified Paper Ballots and computer counting with random by-hand audits of selected precincts.
It’s actually hard, noted Appel at the September 26 Lunch ‘n Learn seminar, to guarantee an accurate vote count, even if no individual election officialis trusted on both sides, and to have a secret ballot. A voting protocol must permit each person to vote (just) once, it must accurately record the votes, and it must accurately count the votes. Voters need to sure that their votes are counted, even if the other side’s people are election officials. We also require secrecy; we must not be able to learn how a person voted with or without their consent.