Friday, September 29, 2006

An octopus of paper

In between various meetings yesterday, I watched some of the House Administration hearing as it was video streamed. I noticed that some of the Representatives made the same mistake that I hear others make and one that I hear repeated often in questions from reporters. "How can we possibly be advocating paper given the problems in Cuyehoga County?" In the ESI study, it was shown that some of the papers did not print, and that the papers did not match the electronic tally. It seems to me that this is like saying, "How can you possibly drive a car given the problems that existed in the Ford Pinto?" or "How can you ever trust a US company given the fraud at Enron?"

Many of us in the Computer Science community have been writing and speaking about the risks of totally electronic voting for several years (Peter Neumann has been doing it for decades). While Diebold has given us a specific instance of an extremely poor electronic voting system, the Accuvote, our criticisms have been leveled at the concept of DREs as much as at the Accuvote. On the other hand, I think that the criticisms of paper ballots apply to the specific "DRE with a paper trail" system that was deployed in Cuyahoga County, and that they do not apply to the concept of paper ballots or paper trails.

More and more, I believe that the best solution to the e-voting dilemma is to use computer-marked or hand-marked paper ballots that are optically scanned, and to randomly audit the scanners. Audio modules can be used for sight-impaired access. I do not like the idea of retrofitting DREs with long rolls of paper trails, or as one election official referred to it, an octopus of paper. I think such weak designs give ammunition to the supporters of DREs and confuse some members of Congress about whether the problem is with the concept of using paper in voting systems or with a particular VVPAT system.