Voting Preparation Report Card

August 7, 2012

Readers, at least those in the United States who have not been living at the bottom of an abandoned mine, are doubtless well, even painfully, aware that there is a presidential election coming up this November.   When the election takes place, voters here in northern Virginia, and in many other jurisdictions, will cast their ballots using electronic voting machines.

I’ve written before about these machines, and some of their many security and privacy issues.   Researchers affiliated with  Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy [CITP] have, with trivial effort, redeployed a Sequoia AVC Edge voting machine to play the classic arcade game, PacMan.   The same group also managed to hack a test of a proposed Internet voting system for Washington DC; many jurisdictions are considering these as a replacement for traditional absentee ballots (e.g., for military personnel deployed overseas).

In addition to the numerous technical issues these new technologies raise, there is a cultural / human element to be considered.  The average election judge probably can understand the security model of traditional paper ballots without too much trouble; that same election judge, in most circumstances, will be more or less clueless about the security issues involved with electronic voting.

All of this argues for a thorough examination of these new systems.  An article at Technology Review reports that a group of authors, from the Verified Voting Foundation, the Rutgers Law School Constitutional Litigation Clinic, and Common Cause, have published an evaluation of how well prepared the states are to deal with voting machine problems.  The study evaluates states on the basis of five criteria:

  1. Does the state require paper ballots or records of every vote?
  2. Does the state have adequate contingency plans at each polling place in the event of machine failure?
  3. Does the state protect military and overseas voters by ensuring that marked ballots are not cast online?
  4. Has the state instituted a post-election audit that can determine whether the electronically reported outcomes are correct?
  5. Does the state use robust ballot reconciliation and tabulation practices?

The report ranks states in five categories (inadequate, needs improvement, generally good, good and excellent), based on these criteria.  The full report is available here [PDF]; there is also an executive summary [PDF].  No state received an Excellent rating, but a few states were given Good ratings.

We determined that five states – Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin – are the best prepared to catch voting system problems and to protect voters from disenfranchisement due to equipment failures.

New York state was also rated Good.  On the other hand, Delaware, Louisiana, and Mississippi were rated Inadequate.

The authors hope that the report will serve as a source of information on best practices for election planning.

We hope that this report serves as a resource guide to election officials, policy makers and concerned citizens alike. Election officials can see and discuss what their peers across the nation are doing to make elections secure and reliable. Similarly, citizens can work with election officials to implement the best practices discussed in the report.

I hope so, too, although I confess that I am not holding my breath.

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