Even a Paper Trail Won't Secure E-Voting, Group Says

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Requiring print-outs as a back-up to electronic voting machines would not improve security but would increase costs of U.S. voting systems, according to a report released Tuesday.

Tech-focused think tank the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) said so-called voter-verified paper trail ballots used in conjunction with e-voting machines would "prevent the use of innovative voting technology that offers voters more security, transparency, and reliability" than paper-only balloting systems.

The U.S. House of Representatives has before it a bill that would require paper-trail ballots to be used with direct recording electronic voting machines. But a paper trail would create several problems, said report author Daniel Castro, an ITIF senior analyst.

Paper audit trails would create an "even bigger dispute" than past elections with missing electronic votes, Castro said. "People wouldn't know which record was accurate -- the paper or the electronic record," he said.

Paper-trail ballots would also increase the cost of elections, Castro said. Printers will fail on election days, and counting machines will malfunction, he said. "When you manually count it, you have problems with the human element," he added.

U.S. residents trust computers to run many other "critical applications" in banking, medicine and aviation, the report said.

Supporters of paper-trail audits disputed the report's findings. "The argument that people trust computers in other places is specious -- safety-critical systems have been developed in other contexts using rigorous standards that are not applied to voting machines," said Eugene Spafford, chairman of the Association for Computing Machinery's (ACM's) U.S. policy committee.

ACM has not called for e-voting machines to be scrapped, but instead for the machines to go through two levels of audit, paper trails and random machine audits, said Spafford, executive director of the Purdue University Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security.

While the report discounts claims that e-voting machines can be hacked and elections reversed, malicious hacking isn't the only problem with e-voting machines, Spafford added.

"Errors, bugs and accidents can also result in problems unless there is an independent, durable audit trail," he said. "Under several guises [the authors] trot out the canard that 'if fraud is so possible, how come it hasn't been proven yet?' This is so obviously wrong that I'm not sure it even deserves a response."

Pamela Smith, president of VerifiedVoting.org, suggested readers of the report "consider the source."

"This is an industry body that has come out with this screed to support the industry," Smith said.

Smith disputed the report's suggestion that a "growing technophobic movement believes that no computer can be trusted for electronic voting."

Several prominent computer security experts have called for paper-trail audits, she said. "The harshest critics of e-voting -- in particular paperless e-voting -- are computer technologists who are the literal opposite of technophobic," she said. "What they claim is that in order to have secure elections, they must be auditable and recountable."

Instead of printouts, lawmakers should look to the next generation of e-voting machines, the report said. One such technology provides a small receipt that voters can take with them and use to check online whether their ballots have been counted. The receipt would give voters more assurance than a typical paper-trail ballot, which they cannot take with them, Castro said.

But Spafford said most newer technologies are unproven, and many aren't transparent to typical voters. "It is important that the mechanism is understandable and trusted by the population as well as correct and auditable by experts," he said. "Systems based on ... cryptographic methods are not understandable to the lay person -- and especially not to technophobic ones. Paper is well understood."

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