Monday, December 13, 2004

National Academies Remarks, December 9, 2004

"The Need for Transparent, Accountable and Verifiable U.S. Elections by Kim Alexander, December 9, 2004

Last week I addressed a committee of the National Academies' Computer Science and Telecommunications board, which is developing a framework for the questions to be asked about e-voting.

I participated in this committee meeting, which took place in Washington, D.C., via teleconference from SRI International in Menlo Park, CA. Others gathered at SRI who spoke to the committee included Ren Bucholz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and computer scientists David Wagner, David Jefferson, Drew Dean and Peter Neumann.



The loss of transparency has been underway in this country for 40 years, ever since punch card voting was introduced.  In most places, the software that is used to tabulate the vote is not verified.  This is propriety software, made by private companies, which is being managed by thousands of people with limited computer skills.  This software is not required by federal law to meet any security, accuracy or reliability standard.  It is unregulated by the federal government and in most states, is poorly regulated. 

There are ways to verify the software that’s used to count votes, but in most places it simply isn’t.  Now, with the onset of paperless, computerized voting systems, we are moving from voting systems that rely on some degree of software which can be checked for accuracy (but typically isn’t), to systems that rely solely on software and cannot be checked for accuracy.

Election issues arise quadrennially—like a blip on a radar.  Now information about the lack of transparency moves at lightening speed across the Internet.  This occasional blip in the radar is catalogued.  Speculation runs rampant.  But due to the opaqueness of the results claims of voter fraud cannot be confirmed or denied.


Cathy Cox, Georgia’s secretary of state, recently wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “every major case of vote fraud” in her state has “involved paper ballots” and goes on to describe various ways vote fraud has been committed on paper voting systems.

The thing is, vote fraud doesn’t disappear just because we change voting systems.  We must be realistic and accept the fact that people can and will always try to cheat in elections. 


If someone suspects there has been a software error, or tampering, they must request a recount.  In most places, only candidates can request a recount, and must pay for it up front.  Most campaigns have no financial resources left after the election to pay for a recount. Requesting a recount is also a very unpopular choice for a defeated candidate, who must endure being called a “sore loser”.  And many election officials shudder at the suggestion of a recount, because it calls their performance into question. 

In short, we have placed the burden of verifying elections on candidates, when in fact it is election officials who should be routinely and publicly verifying election results, no matter what the margins are. 

There must be a step in between an automated count and a recount, and this is what’s missing in the vote counting process right now—routine and public verification.


Election officials who have adopted electronic voting repeatedly assure the public that the results are accurate.  We should not have to take their word for it.  After all, every election the government is on the ballot.  And most election officials work for the same politicians who are running for office.  While many election officials strive to be  impartial and professional in their duties, some take on roles in political campaigns or are active members of political parties.  Such activities raise legitimate doubts in voters’ minds about whether elections and vote counting are conducted in a fair and impartial manner.  Such doubts could be easily put to rest if computerized election results would be routinely and publicly verified.

It is not enough that election officials, or equipment vendors, or even computer scientists tell us that the results are accurate.  Any reasonable person deserves the right and opportunity to see for themselves that the results are accurate.


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes Article 21, which states that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government” and “shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections”.

Until we achieve greater transparency and accountability in our voting process, U.S. voters will continue to question how genuine our election results truly are. Congress may reconsider HAVA in the upcoming year, and when it does, it must step up to the election security plate in order to protect the legitimacy of its authority.  The United States deserves so much more than this rickety system we have today.  We need a voting process that serves as an example, not an embarrassment.  We need a process that utilizes computer technology in a responsible, not reckless, manner.  Such a system by design must include a voter verified paper record, routine verification of computerized vote counts, and mandatory federal security standards.

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