November 27, 2020

Computer Scientists' Campaign for Trustworthy E-Voting

Many computer scientists (including me) have endorsed a statement opposing the use of electronic voting machines that don’t provide a voter-verifiable audit trail.

What this means is that the voter should get some concrete indication, other than just a message on a computer screen, that his or her vote has been recorded correctly. There are many ways to do this. For example, a computerized voting system might offer a convenient user interface for selecting candidates, and then print out a paper ballot that the voter can inspect and drop into a ballot box. The paper ballots then provide an auditable record of the votes that were cast.

The alternative strategy, of building a voting machine as a sealed electronic “black box,” is risky. Without an independent check on the workings of the technology, there is no practical way to ensure that the technology is functioning correctly. Misrecording of votes, whether due to malice or to a technological snafu, is too difficult to detect without an auditable record.

Unfortunately, many localities are moving ahead with purchases of the risky voting machines. Computer scientists have mobilized to try to stop this in several places, most recently in the heart of silicon valley, Santa Clara County, California.

It is tempting, in light of the imprecision and rancor we saw in Florida’s 2000 election, to look to technology to make voting processes error-free. If we knew how to make highly trustworthy technology, a closed, high-tech system might be the answer. But we don’t know how to do that – we’re not even close. Some e-voting vendors won’t even let the public know how their technology works, claiming that their design is proprietary and public scrutiny isn’t needed.

All the black box voting systems can provide today is the illusion of certainty, and that’s not enough. Every voting technology will make errors. I would much prefer a system whose errors and drawbacks are out in the open for all to see.

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If you’re a computer scientist, you can endorse the statement here. Thanks to Stanford professor David Dill for orchestrating this effort.