May 22, 2017

On the future of voting technologies: simplicity vs. sophistication

Yesterday, I testified before a hearing of Colorado’s Election Reform Commission. I made a small plug, at the end of my testimony, for a future generation of electronic voting machines that would use crypto machinery for end-to-end / software independent verification. Normally, the politicos tend to ignore this and focus on the immediately actionable stuff (e.g., current-generation DREs are unacceptably insecure; optical-scan is the best thing presently on the market). Not this time. I got a bunch of questions asking me to explain how a crypto voting system can be verifiable, how you can prove that the machine is behaving properly, and so forth. Pretty amazing. What I realized, however, is that it’s really hard to explain crypto machinery to non-CS people. I did my best, but it was clear from conversations afterward that a few minutes of Q&A did little to give them any confidence that crypto voting machinery really works.

Another of the speakers, Neil McBurnett, was talking about doing variable sampling-rate audits (as a function of how close the tally is). Afterward, he lamented to me, privately, how hard it is to explain basic concepts like what it means for something to be “statistically significant.”

There’s a clear common theme here. How do we explain to the public the basic scientific theories that underly the problems that voting systems face? My written testimony (reused from an earlier hearing in Texas) includes links to papers, and some people will follow up. Others won’t. My big question is whether we have a research challenge to invent progressively simpler systems that still have the right security properties, or whether we have an education challenge to explain that a certain amount of complexity is worthwhile for the good properties that can be achieved. (Uglier question: is it a desirable goal to weaken the security properties in return for greater simplicity? What security properties would you sacrifice?)

Certainly, with our own VoteBox system, which uses a variation on Benaloh‘s voter-initiated ballot challenge mechanism, one of the big open questions is whether real voters, who just want to cast their votes and don’t care about the security mechanisms, will be tripped up by the extra question at the end that’s fundamental to the mechanism. We’re going to need to run human subject tests against these aspects of the machine design, and if they fail in practice, it’s going to be a trip back to the drawing board.

[Sidebar: I’m co-teaching a class on elections with Bob Stein (a political scientist) and Mike Byrne (a psychologist). The students are a mix of Rice undergrads, most of whom aren’t computer scientists. I experimentally built a lecture that began by teaching just enough number theory to explain how El Gamal cryptography works and how it allows for homomorphic vote tallying. Then I described how VoteBox uses this mechanism, and wrapped up with an explanation of how to do Benaloh-style challenges. I left out a lot of details, like how you generate large prime numbers, or how you construct NIZK proofs, but I seemed to have the class along with me for the lecture. If I can sell the idea of end-to-end cryptographic mechanisms to undergraduate non-science students, then there may yet be some hope.]

Counting Electronic Votes in Secret

Things are not looking good for open government when it comes to observing poll workers on Election Night. Our state election laws, written for the old lever machines, now apply to Sequoia electronic voting machines. Andrew Appel and I have been asking a straightforward question: Can ordinary members of the public watch the procedures used by poll workers to count the votes?

I submitted a formal request to the Board of Elections of Mercer County (where Princeton University is located), seeking permission to watch the poll workers when they close the polls (on Sequoia AVC Advantage voting computers) and announce the results. They said no!

The Election Board said this election is “too important” to permit extra people in the polling place.

They even went so far as to suggest that my written application was fraudulent. I applied on behalf of five people: two Princeton University students, two professors, and myself. In an abundance of caution, I requested authorization in the form of “challenger badges” which the Board of Elections can issue at its discretion. By phone, I explained our interest in merely watching the poll workers.

Of course we understand that they might not want extra people getting in the way on Election Night — that’s why we took measures to get special authorization. To ensure that we could be lawfully present, we asked for challenger badges as non-partisan proponents and opponents of two Public Questions on the ballot, as permitted by NJSA 19:7-2. My request was entirely in compliance with state law, as all the prospective challengers are registered to vote in Mercer County.

In spite of this, the Board expressed reluctance, based on the identities of the prospective challengers. In particular, they cited Andrew’s status as an expert on Sequoia voting machines as a “concern,” and provided assurances that Sequoia has fixed all the problems he identified in past elections.

Other counties in New Jersey permit members of the public to watch the poll workers “read” the election results. Combined with Judge Feinberg’s decision to suppress Andrew’s report on the security of the Sequoia machines, Mercer County conveys the unfortunate impression it does not welcome scrutiny of its electronic voting process.

Judge Suppresses Report on Voting Machine Security

A judge of the New Jersey Superior Court has prohibited the scheduled release of a report on the security and accuracy of the Sequoia AVC Advantage voting machine. Last June, Judge Linda Feinberg ordered Sequoia Voting Systems to turn over its source code to me (serving as an expert witness, assisted by a team of computer scientists) for a thorough examination. At that time she also ordered that we could publish our report 30 days after delivering it to the Court–which should have been today.

Three weeks after we delivered the report, on September 24th Judge Feinberg ordered us not to release it. This is part of a lawsuit filed by the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic, seeking to decommission of all of New Jersey’s voting computers. New Jersey mostly uses Sequoia AVC Advantage direct-recording electronic (DRE) models. None of those DREs can be audited: they do not produce a voter verified paper ballot that permit each voter to create a durable paper record of her electoral choices before casting her ballot electronically on a DRE. The legal basis for the lawsuit is quite simple: because there is no way to know whether the DRE voting computer is actually counting votes as cast, there is no proof that the voting computers comply with the constitution or with statutory law that require that all votes be counted as cast.

The question of whether this report can legally be suppressed was already argued once in this Court, in June 2008, and the Court concluded then that it should be released; I will discuss this below. But as a matter of basic policy–of running a democracy–the public and legislators who want to know the basic facts about the reliability of their elections need to be able to read reports such as this one. Members of the New Jersey Legislature–who need to act now because the NJ Secretary of State is not in compliance with laws the legislature passed in 2005–have asked to read this report, but they are precluded by the Court’s order. Members of the public must decide now, in time to request an absentee ballot, whether to cast their ballot by absentee (counted by optical scan) or to vote on paperless DRE voting machines. Citizens also need information so that they can communicate to their legislators their opinions about how New Jersey should conduct elections. Even the Governor and the Secretary of State of New Jersey are not permitted, by the Court’s order, to read this report in order to inform their policy making.

Examination of the AVC Advantage. In the spring of 2008, Judge Linda Feinberg ordered the defendants (officials of the State of New Jersey) to provide to the plaintiffs: (a) Sequoia AVC Advantage voting machines, (b) the source code to those voting machines, and (c) other specified information. The Sequoia Voting Systems company, which had not been a party to the lawsuit, objected to the examination of their source code by the plaintiffs’ experts, on the grounds that the source code contained trade secrets. The Court recognized that concern, and crafted a Protective Order that permitted the plaintiffs’ experts to examine the source code while protecting the trade secrets within it. However, the Court Order, issued by Judge Feinberg on June 20, does permit the plaintiffs’ experts to release this report to the public at a specified time (which has now arrived). In fact, the clause of this Order that permits the release of the report was the subject of lengthy legal argument in May-June 2008, and the plaintiffs’ experts were not willing to examine the AVC Advantage machines under conditions that prevent public discussion of their findings.

I served as the plaintiffs’ expert witness and led an examination team including myself and 5 other computer scientists (Maia Ginsburg, Harri Hursti, Brian Kernighan, Chris Richards, and Gang Tan). We examined the voting machines and source code during July-August 2008. On September 2nd we provided to the Court (and to the defendants and to Sequoia) a lengthy report concerning the accuracy and security of the Sequioa AVC Advantage. The terms of the Court’s Protective Order of June 20 permit us to release the report today, October 2nd.

However, on September 24 Judge Feinberg, “with great reluctance,” orally ordered the plaintiffs not to release the report on October 2nd, and not to publicly discuss their conclusions from the study. She did so after the attorney for Sequoia grossly mischaracterized our report. In order to respect the Judge’s temporary stay, I cannot now comment further on what the report does contain.

The plaintiffs are deeply troubled by the Court’s issuance of what is essentially a temporary restraining order restricting speech, without any motion or briefing whatsoever. Issuing such an order is an extreme measure, which should be done only in rare circumstances, and only if the moving party has satisfied its high burden of showing both imminent harm and likelihood of success on the merits. Those two requirements have not been satisfied, nor can they be. The plaintiffs have asked the Court to reconsider her decision to suppress our report. The Court will likely hear arguments on this issue sometime in October. We hope and expect that the Court will soon permit publication of our report.