Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Technology & Tennis

I was watching the US Open last night, and believe it or not, something made me think of the e-voting controversy. It all boils down to the use of new technology. For years now, audiences watching tennis on television have been able to see the "Mac" cam (named for John McEnroe who was famous for arguing line calls in his day and is now an announcer at the US Open) showing the precise landing of the ball next to or on the line. I, and many others, have advocated for the institution of instant replay where the players could challenge the call on a close line call, and instant replay using very high speed cameras could definitively answer the question of whether the ball was in or out. This year, the tennis association finally adopted instant replay at the US Open, and it was on display for the first time yesterday.

Late into the second set, Andre Agassi was having a tough time in his first round match against Andrei Pavel from Romania. Agassi had lost the first set, and it was 4-4 in the second - a very tight match. Pavel hit a ball down the line that looked like it clipped the line, but Agassi was sure it was out. John McEnroe in the announcers booth stated that it was clearly out, and that Agassi should challenge. So, Agassi challenged the call, and the close up slow motion replay showed that in fact it was good. Then something happened that I thought was amazing. McEnroe stated that "you have to question the technology." I couldn't believe it. McEnroe has been preaching for years that we need to add a camera on every line and have instant replay. Now he has what he wants, and the replay (which is actually a graphical simulation of the trajectory of the ball) shows that the ball was in, and so rather than accept it, McEnroe questions the technology.

I find that people in general are perfectly happy with technology, unless it disagrees with their inherent notion about something. When the results of something technologically enabled appear counter-intuitive, the first instinct is to challenge the correctness of the technology. This does not bode well for trusting elections to technological systems that require trust in the computers. As long as the election results are as expected, or as someone wants, that person will be happy. But, the minute there is a controversial election, a close race, or a disgruntled loser (and disgruntled supporters), the technology will come into question.

John McEnroe, long-time advocate of instant replay, had an immediate instinct to question the results of the technology when it disagreed with his observation. That comment by him undermines the entire efficacy of the solution. Similarly, if we continue to move towards election systems that require trust in software and computer systems, the public will justifiably lose confidence in the results as soon as they are unhappy with them.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Voting system reviews are needed

I have been receiving requests for help analyzing voting systems, and the number of requests are increasing now that primary season is heating up. Some of these requests are from parties representing losing candidates and some are from concerned citizens. I don't have the bandwidth to analyze these systems, and I'm already maxed out on travel. It's very frustrating to hear how many people feel they need their voting systems analyzed by experts, without being able to help them all. I know that many people, such as Doug Jones, Dan Wallach, and David Wagner are already assisting several jurisdictions with such analyses, but there are many places out there that are not getting any help. Here is the request I received today, for example:

    Dear Mr Rubin,

    Please find enclosed information regarding our election challenge in Memphis. We have sought help from others because of the diebold usage and the magnitude of improprieties that occurred during early voting and on election day including voter fraud. Your help is urgently needed to either recommend someone or to come yourself to review information on the machines. We were given your name by Mr. Dill at verifiedvoting.com. Please contact me at once either via email or by calling me at 901.550-1306.

    Shep Wilbun

What is really needed is a resource such as a pool of technical people who can quickly descend upon any location, and who have the expertise to do computer forensics, as well as an understanding of elections and election law. Unfortunately such people are (to quote Fred Brooks) as rare as hen's teeth. If anybody has any ideas of what can be done to respond to this and other such requests, please post them in the comments below. My graduate students are all working at full capacity and cannot drop everything to help with these events, and in general, it seems that finding technical help, especially in remote locations such as Memphis, is virtually impossible on short notice. This is a real problem.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Election Judge Training

Our primary in Maryland is coming up on September 12. Once again, I've volunteered to be an election judge in Baltimore County, and this time, I was assigned my home precinct at temple Har Sinai, which is right near my house. Despite having already worked an election, I was required to attend poll worker training again for this election, a three hours session that I attended today with about 60 other judges. I'd say that three quarters of us had been judges before, from a show of hands. We went over all of the procedures, and then we had hands-on training with all of the equipment.

The process is mostly the same as in 2004. The one big difference is that we will be using Diebold's poll books for checking in voters in stead of paper access cards. The poll books are touchscreen computers that contain databases of all of the registered voters in the state of Maryland and their real-time status, meaning, whether they had registered absentee, already voted, were required to show photo ID (for first time voters), etc. The electronic poll books are all networked together via ethernet so that someone can't check in on one machine and then check in later on another. It was not made clear how, if at all, the machines were networked with other poll books at other precincts. I imagine that after the election, they are all synchronized somehow. So, if that's the case, then it would be possible to vote in one preceinct and then go vote in another one, but that would be caught after the fact. However, since there cannot be a record of how someone voted, it's not clear to me what could be done after catching people who did this (besides punishing them) to undo the extra votes. There is no network connection at the polls, so I'm not really sure how cross-precinct synchronization is possible until after the election. There is a modem used with the voting machines, but that is to report preliminary results to the board of elections, and we were not told that it would be used for the poll books.

I found several differences from the last time I did poll worker training too, mostly in the attitude of the other judges. Several of them told me that they did not trust these machines and that they don't see why we have to vote on these when the old way worked fine. I'm pretty sure none of them knew who I was. One gentleman went so far as to tell me that he was sure that "someone on the board of elections must have been in tight with the vendor and received kickbacks, otherwise why would they go to all the trouble to get these unnecessary machines." I shrugged and kind of nodded uncomfortably. There seemed to be several issues that upset some of the judges. One of them was the fact that in Maryland election judges are not allowed to ask people who come in to vote for a photo ID, unless the poll book comes up with a photo ID requirement (MVA registered voters voting for the first time) or if a registered election challenger demands it. When I suggested to a few people that there might be poor people who do not have driver's licenses, they got it, but overall, there was a strong sentiment that security was so important that this was a crazy law.

Another issue that caused a stir was when we were shown how the memory cards are used to accumulate the votes. We were told that these were the definitive ballots, and that we had to guard them with our lives. The man next to me turned to me, again, not knowing my background (I believe), and said that he was outraged that the memory cards would be used to hold votes. He said that a magnet could erase them, and that these fragile things should not be trusted with votes.

Overall, I felt that the awareness that many of us have raised about the DREs in Maryland and the security problems, the lack of audit, and the inability to perform meaningful recounts, had made a difference in this group. One thing that I found a bit funny was a flowchart of how to handle requests for provisional ballots. This appeared in the election judge manual, and we went over it. At the end of the flowchart it says, a person requests a provisional ballot because they are protesting electronic voting, and the instructions say that such a person may not receive a provisional ballot. It was interesting that in the election judge manual in Maryland, there is an acknowledgement that some people might protest the use of DREs at the polls, and there are instructions for dealing with that situation.

Out of the approximately 60 people there, I would estimate that most were older than 75 years old. There was one other person there of my generation, and she told me that her oldest is starting college next year. So, even she is probably a bit older than me, as my oldest is 7 years old. The people seemed enthusiastic, attentive, and despite the 3 hour duration of this training, which did not end early, everybody paid attention the whole time, and nobody hesitated to express themselves about their thoughts.

One final comment. When the admin smartcard was demonstrated to us, the PIN value was 1111. The trainers joked about that, and then said not to worry because there would be real passwords used in the actual elections. (of course in 2004, 1111 was the real value)

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Election Science Institute report

About a week ago, the Election Science Institute released a report analyzing the performance of a DRE with a VVPAT in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. The report appears to me to be well written and the study well thought out. It has also generated a lot of chatter on the Internet. I have found on some "pro paper trail" mailing lists that I am on that people have used this report to show that DREs are error prone, and that the paper is more important than ever. Groups such as Voters Unite produced reports to that effect (e.g. this one). Likewise, people who might be categorized as "anti paper trail", such as Dan Tokajo at Ohio State, have used this report to criticize VVPAT (see Tokajo's blog entry).

I find it interesting that different people on different sides of the issue have used this report to back up the claims they've been making all along. One thing that is absolutely clear to me, and something I believe pretty much everybody would agree on is that such studies are extremely valuable, and we need more of them.

I will take this opportunity, as I have in the past, to respectfully disagree with Dan Tokaji, although not entirely. I will concede that the machines used in this study clearly did not implement an ideal paper audit trail. In fact, if you read the study, it is pretty clear that there were many faults with the paper audit trail. Where I part ways with Tokaji's is in his conclusions. I do not believe that the concept of a voter verified paper audit trail should be thrown out just because there was a poor implementation of it. In fact, if you consider a ballot marking system, where there is no electronic tally, such a system qualifies as a VVPAT, and would by its nature avoid many of the problems that arose in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.

As the Voters Unite article that I reference above mentions, there were discrepancies in the electronic tallies between the machines and the memory cards. My feeling is that until we get to the point where we are guaranteed to have no discrepancies (and some day cryptographic solutions may get us there), we need to have a paper trail. We don't necessarily need to have a bad implementation of a paper trail as they did in Ohio, but we cannot afford not to have paper in the process because ultimately, if there are discrepancies, we have to resolve them somehow, and the best way that I can think of is to have pieces of paper that the voters have seen their votes recorded on, avaialable for counts and recounts.

I view the Cuyahoga County report as a very positive development. The more we study new systems and find their warts, the more we can discuss how to develop better systems to reach the goal that everybody is after.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Interview with Kitty Pilgrim on CNN

Today, I took the train down to Washington, DC and did an interview with Kitty Pilgrim on "Lou Dobbs Tonight" on CNN about e-voting and Brave New Ballot.

(double click on the image to view streaming video)

The interview lasted 5 minutes and 37 seconds - a record for me on CNN, I think. I had the opportunity to make a few critical points about the importance of voter verification and the security problems inherent in DREs. I'm hoping that the release of the book will expose a good portion of the public to the issues on a much deeper level than the sound bites in the media have over the last couple of years.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

First Post

I heard on NPR yesterday that there are over 10,000 new blogs created every day. Wow.

So, I've decided to create my own blog now, especially since my new book is coming out in a couple of weeks, and I'm sure I'll have plenty to discuss. In fact, tomorrow, I will speak with Kitty Pilgrim on "Lou Dobbs Tonight" on CNN about the book. This will also be where I'll post my thoughts on being an election judge this coming primary on September 12, and of course in the general election in November. I have my election judge training for Baltimore County this Thursday.

So, I guess I'm now officially a blogger. I wonder if anyone will notice.