May 30, 2024

Response to ITIF Voting Report

[This post was written by David Robinson and me, based on our discussions with Alex Halderman, Joe Calandrino, and Ari Feldman.]

On Tuesday, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation released a report on the possible role of paper trails in auditing elections conducted using DRE machines. The report contained a blend of reasonable and unreasonable claims, and careful and uncareful argumentation. A lay reader might come away from the report – entitled Stop the Presses: How Paper Trails Fail to Secure e-Voting – with the belief that the addition of paper trails to DRE voting machines makes them less secure than they are on their own. Such a belief would be incorrect.

As the report puts it at one point, “The addition of paper audit trails to DRE voting machines would simply convert our elections back to a paper ballot system.” The report dwells at remarkable length on the convenient appearance of extra ballots during Lyndon Johnson’s political career. But we know about that cheating today precisely because paper ballots, unlike many DRE vote tallies, can be independently recounted.

One could spend months arguing about what exact position emerges from the 19 pages of delicately drafted hedging that make up the body of this report. But the bottom line – contrary to the impression most readers will gather from the report – is that paper and electronic voting together are, if done right, better than either the best paper system or the best computerized system would be alone.

The ITIF report suggests that a situation in which the paper and electronic records don’t match would be a disaster, since authorities wouldn’t know which record to trust. But that’s a shortsighted view. Divergent paper and electronic records are a sure sign that something has gone awry during voting. In some cases, that sign lets officials make a reasonable judgment about which record is, under the specific circumstances of a given race, more likely to be trustworthy.

The real worst-case scenario isn’t divergent paper and electronic records – with their attendant litigation and political discord. The real worst case is an attack or error that never even comes to the attention of election officials or the public, because there isn’t an independent way of catching problems.


  1. Does this effectively mean “Shorter ITIF Report: It’s Better Not to Know Your Elections Have Been Tampered With”?

  2. Hal: Sorry. Too easy to prove your vote etc. Please try again.

  3. IMO the end point of existing trends is clear: voting by Internet from home. This will be a simplified and streamlined version of the voting by mail trend which is already growing. Oregon now does all ballots by mail, and in California’s last election over 50% of ballots were cast that way. All this arguing over paper trails amounts to squabbling over an ever decreasing portion of the electoral pie.

    I would suggest that the security community devote itself to devising systems and procedures that will make 21st century voting safe rather than trying to bring back the 19th century. “Skate to where the puck will be.” It is time to focus on Internet voting.

  4. And even if it did “convert our elections back to a paper ballot system”, what of it? The official, public-policy reason for pushing e-voting is to improve access to the system by the disabled. (As it was, they could have human assistance — with the loss of ballot secrecy and other potential problems. Problems that still exist, in much worse form, with absentee ballots.) Computer-aided preparation of ballots suffices for that. Nothing in that public policy goal, aiding the disabled to vote independently of human assistance, requires electronic recording and tallying whatsoever.

    Indeed, those “features” of e-voting can only serve one of two ulterior motives (or both):
    * Make doing the election cheaper. (The amount saved is a drop in the bucket compared to the defense budget. Isn’t protecting democracy from internal threats worth even that small fraction of what protecting it from external threats is evidently valued at?)
    * Enable massive, hard-to-detect fraud.

    I suspect the latter, unfortunately. America’s democracy has become a hollow shell. The defense budget isn’t even to defend democracy anymore but to prevent a foreign power from usurping the local power elites now. Money spent on electoral security, on the other hand, actually makes it easier for the local power elites to be usurped (by a popular vote against them); making sure they can rig the votes to stay in power while saving money doing so is the only logical move for these power elites.

    Meanwhile, I hear that parts of Canada are considering switching to a European-style proportional representation system. The inevitable FUD assumes a rather interesting form: the suggestion that the result will be *too democratic*, in essence, and as a result a population majority of immigrants that may exist in the near future will be able to legislate things like Sharia law or something (depending on what immigrants). Of course there are serious issues of logic with this! For example, immigration could be tightened up. Also, it takes more than a bare majority to amend the constitution of a country, and things like Sharia law surely are unconstitutional there as the constitution there currently stands! I expect even then that there are other checks and balances built into the governing bodies in Canada. Of course, a coalition government is generally dominated by moderates rather than extremists, whatever the population looks like ethnically, too. Spain probably has proportional representation and a large Muslim population, and it isn’t under Sharia law. The existing system probably creates a bigger threat of bicameral takeover of the legislature by extremists — and arguably in the US this has already happened (1998-2006, Republican right-wing extremists dominating both House and Senate, moderated somewhat by Clinton’s veto power during the first two years of those eight). Did people worry that far-right-wing LePen would take over in France a few years ago? Yes. Did he? Nope — the center-right and center-left moderates dominated the French legislature as usual after the dust settled and the final tallies came in. The evidence is that proportional representation systems tend to do the exact right thing, give the wingnuts on both sides a voice but not too much influence. Giving them a voice is important to prevent terrorism. So is not giving them too much influence. 🙂

  5. As promised, here is my review (summary and point-by-point).

    In brief:
    I am basic agreement with the thesis of the report which is that the debate about eVoting should move beyond voter-verified paper audit trails to include systems that can prove to a voter that their vote was counted as cast. However, I found the tone and focus of the report disagreeable and I disagreed with much of the material in the report advocating for eVoting and against voter-verified paper audit trails.

  6. Good comments and the point is clear. Unfortunate you had to say “A lay reader might come away …” the readers of this blog don’t often miss the poiint – are we all smarter than lay peple ?

  7. MathFox, I believe you hit the nail on the head, at least at the federal level.

    I won’t comment on the ITIF article until I’ve had a chance to look over it. I have a hard time believing that Alex and Ari would really be saying what E&D’s conclusion suggests, and I hope it’s just some mis-communication.

  8. Does this effectively mean “Shorter ITIF Report: It’s Better Not to Know Your Elections Have Been Tampered With”?

    What strikes more about the title, at least, is it’s utter and absolute irrelevance to the question we should be asking: can adding a paper trail be more secure than not adding a paper trail? Complaining about the fact that paper trails fall short of the holy grail of complete ballot security is like complaining that seat belts won’t protect you if you drive your car over a cliff.

  9. It is not just the voting machines, but to this outside observer it seems that the whole US electoral system is designed to keep “the two parties” in power.
    I am used to a system of proportional representation that tends to generate coalition governments; about a dozen parties in parliament.

  10. If your goal is sheep-like acceptance of buggy and/or crooked voting machines, then yes, divergent tallies would be a disaster.

  11. I’ve written a bit about the Daniel Castro’s ITIF report. I’ll write more once I’ve read it.

  12. People don’t like it when you invent systems that show problems – they prefer to not know about the problems.

    I once got chewed out for writing a replacement system that showed we were dropping money from some transactions on the floor – the thing is, the system it was replacing had been doing the exact same thing, but not recording the fact!

    Lesson: Ignorance may be bliss, but by definition it’s more expensive than you know!