Computerized Voting Systems Pose Unacceptable Risks

Stanford professor writes "Resolution on Electronic Voting" to outline risks.

by / January 31, 2003
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Warning of programming error, equipment malfunction and malicious tampering, computer scientists from around the country, led by Stanford professor David Dill, argue that computerized voting machines should provide a voter-verifiable audit trail.

Eighty-eight computer scientists and technologists from universities and laboratories across the nation have signed Dill's "Resolution on Electronic Voting."

The resolution states that it is "crucial that voting equipment provide a voter-verifiable audit trail, by which we mean a permanent record of each vote that can be checked for accuracy by the voter before the vote is submitted, and is difficult or impossible to alter after it has been checked."

Computerized voting has been a focus of discussion in many jurisdictions.

On Jan. 31, Northern California's Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors will meet to consider a recommendation from the County Registrar to purchase electronic voting equipment. Dill said the type of machines the county is considering do not provide a voter-verifiable audit trail.

Santa Clara is one of nine California counties under court order to replace punch-card voting systems by March 2004. Paperless, touch-screen voting machines are used by nearly one in five voting precincts nationwide.

"They pose an unacceptable risk that errors or deliberate election-rigging will go undetected, since they do not provide a way for the voters to verify independently that the machine correctly records and counts the votes they have cast," said Dill, who, in 2001, was named a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) for his contributions to verification of circuits and systems.

Though some voting-equipment vendors and government officials argue that paperless, computerized voting systems are reliable, Dill said he and his colleagues disagree.

"Without a voter-verifiable audit trail, it is not practical to provide reasonable assurance of the integrity of these voting systems by any combination of design review, inspection, testing, logical analysis or control of the system development process," according to the resolution.

The resolution is being circulated at a time when many states and counties are seeking to upgrade their voting equipment. In response to problems with elections in recent years, funding is being made available at all levels of government to upgrade election equipment.

"Unfortunately, if available funds are spent on fatally-flawed 'high-tech' voting equipment, it will be a long time before there is more funding to adopt truly superior voting technology," the statement says.

The computer scientists and technologists urge jurisdictions that have already purchased such voting systems to replace or modify them to produce ballots that can be checked independently by the voter before being submitted and that cannot be altered after submission.

They also urge government officials who must replace outdated punch card voting systems to refrain from purchasing new voting equipment that does not provide a voter-verifiable audit trail.

"Election reform is now receiving much-needed attention, but we must guard against changes that inadvertently create even worse problems," Dill wrote. "Un-auditable voting equipment will erode confidence in our elections, causing further disillusionment of the voting public."

Stanford University