Topic: Government and Politics

How to Reform E-Voting

On Friday, I made the case for scrapping computerized voting. Today I’m going to look at the leading legislative proposal to accomplish that goal, Rush Holt’s Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act. As I wrote in a recent article, the proposal would do several things:

It bans the use of computerized voting machines that lack a voter-verified paper trail. It mandates that the paper records be the authoritative source in any recounts, and requires prominent notices reminding voters to double-check the paper record before leaving the polling place. It mandates automatic audits of at least three percent of all votes cast to detect discrepancies between the paper and electronic records. It bans voting machines that contain wireless networking hardware and prohibits connecting voting machines to the Internet. Finally, it requires that the source code for e-voting machines be made publicly available.

All of these seem to me to be big steps in the right direction. Requiring source code disclosure gives security experts like Ed Felten and Avi Rubin the opportunity to study e-voting systems and alert the authorities if major security problems are discovered. Banning Internet connections and wireless networking hardware closes off two major avenues hackers could use to compromise the machines. Perhaps most importantly, by requiring that machines produce paper records, that those records be the official record, and that the records be randomly audited, the legislation would provide a relatively high degree of certainty that even if a voting machine were hacked, we would be able to detect it and recover by using the paper records.

All in all, this seems like a good idea to me. But the legislation is not without its critics. I’ll consider two major criticisms below the fold.

One set of objections comes from state election officials. Some officials argue that some of the legislation’s requirements would be an unreasonable burden on them. I’m a strong proponent of federalism, so those concerns are worth taking seriously. But the Holt proposal appears to do a reasonably good job of respecting states’ autonomy in designing their own election procedures. For example, if a state already has an auditing procedure that differs from the procedure mandated in the Holt bill, it is permitted to continue using its own procedures so long as the National Institute for Science and Technology certifies that the state’s procedures will be no less effective. Other tweaks may be appropriate to avoid stepping on the toes of state election officials, but on the whole, the Holt legislation seems to me to strike a good balance between local autonomy and the need to ensure that federal elections are secure and transparent.

The most vocal critics of the legislation come from activists who feel the legislation does not go far enough. They believe that nothing less than an outright ban on computerized voting is acceptable. And they have some good arguments. They point out that the add-on printers now on the market are slow and unreliable, that technical glitches can lead to long lines that drive away voters, and that many voters don’t bother looking at the paper record of their vote anyway, reducing their usefulness.

These are all good reasons to prefer old-fashioned paper ballots over e-voting machines with a printer bolted on. Fortunately, the Holt bill does not require any state to use computerized voting machines. That decision is left up to the states, and activists are free to lobby state legislatures to use only paper ballots.

The activists may be right that an outright ban on computerized voting would be a simpler and more elegant solution to the problem. It would certainly make the legislation a lot shorter, since most of the bill is designed to address the defects of computerized voting machines. However, there does not appear to be much appetite for an outright e-voting ban this Congress, and I don’t think we can afford to run another election on the current crop of buggy and insecure voting machines. The Holt bill may not be perfect, but it seems like a big step in the direction of more secure and transparent elections.

This Is a Republic (2)

At an appearance in Iowa this month, the Washington Post reports, Sen. John McCain went out of his way to declare his support for President Bush:

“There’s only one commander in chief of the United States, and that’s George W. Bush,” he told the crowd.

No, senator. This is a constitutional republic, and we don’t have a commander in chief. According to Article II of the Constitution, “The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.”

That’s an important distinction, and it’s disturbing that any candidate for the presidency would miss it. If McCain wants to be commander in chief of the whole country, of you and me, and to direct us the way the president directs the officers and soldiers of the armed forces, he needs to propose an amendment to the Constitution–an amendment that would effectively make the rest of the Constitution irrelevant, since it was designed as a Constitution for a limited government of a free people.

Next McCain will want us to bow and curtsy.

The Case Against E-Voting

Ars Technica has an article about problems created by e-voting machines in the French elections on Sunday. Apparently, technical problems caused long lines, causing some voters to be turned away from the polls.

France’s problems are not an isolated incident. In November’s U.S. election, one county in Florida (ironically, the one Katherine Harris was vacating) seems to have lost about 10,000 votes, which happens to be smaller than the margin of victory between the candidates. And there were numerous smaller examples of e-voting problems all over the United States in the 2006 elections.

Those incidents by themselves would be a good argument for scrapping computerized voting. But the most important argument is more fundamental: e-voting is not, and never can be, transparent. The most important goal of any election system is that the voting process be reliable and resistant to manipulation. Transparency is a critical part of that. Transparency makes it more likely that any tampering with the election process will be detected before it can do any damage.

With e-voting, the process of recording, tabulating, and counting votes is opaque, if not completely secret. Indeed, in most cases, the source code to the e-voting machines is a trade secret, not available for public inspection. Even if the source code were available, there would still be no way to ensure that the software on a voting machine wasn’t tampered with after it was installed. This means that if someone did install malicious software onto a voting machine, there would likely be no way for us to find out until it was too late.

This isn’t just a theoretical concern. Last fall, Princeton computer science professor Ed Felten obtained an e-voting machine (a Diebold Accuvote-TS, one of the most widely used models in the United States) and created a virus that could be used to steal an election. The virus would spread from machine to machine through the memory cards that are inserted into the machines to install software upgrades. (Of course, Felten didn’t use his virus on any real voting machines or release the software to the public)

Although it may be possible to close the specific security vulnerabilities that Felten discovered, there’s no way to be sure that others wouldn’t be found in the future. Indeed, after being infected with Felten’s virus, a voting machine would behave exactly the same as a normal voting machine, except that it would innaccurately record some of the votes. Moreover, the virus could easily be designed to evade pre-election testing procedures. For example, it could be programmed to only steal votes at a particular date and time, or to only start stealing votes after a hundred votes have been cast. It would be very difficult — probably impossible — to design a testing regime that would ensure that a voting machine has not been compromised.

Therefore, the safest course of action is to stop using e-voting machines entirely, and to return to a tried-and-true technology: paper ballots. There are a variety of technologies available to count paper ballots, but probably the best choice is optical-scan machines. These have a proven track record and many state election officials have decades of experience working with them.

E-voting supporters point out that paper ballots have their own flaws. And it’s true: paper is far from perfect. But there’s an important difference between paper ballots and e-voting: stealing a paper-ballot election is extremely labor-intensive. To steal even a relatively minor race would involve stationing people at multiple precincts. Except in extremely close races, stealing a major race like Congress, governor, or president would require dozens, if not hundreds, of people. It’s very difficult to keep such a large conspiracy secret. As a result, voter fraud with paper ballots will almost always be small-scale. Occasionally, someone might get away with stealing an election for city council or a state representative, but races higher up the ticket won’t be affected.

In contrast, just one person can steal a computerized election if he’s in the right place. For example, a technician who serviced Diebold Accuvote-TS in the months before the 2006 elections could easily have developed a version of Felten’s virus and discreetly installed it on all voting machines in his service territory, which could have encompassed a county or perhaps even an entire state. In fact, he wouldn’t even have needed access to all the machines; simply by putting the software on one memory card in 2005 or early 2006, he could have started the process of spreading the virus from machine to machine as other technicians transferred memory cards among them.

The idea of a single person being able to steal a major election is much more frightening than the prospect of a larger group of people being able to steal a minor election. Of course, we should do whatever we can to prevent either scenario, but the risks posed by e-voting are clearly much more worrisome.

Fortunately, Congress is on the case, and may pass legislation restricting the use of e-voting machines during this session. In my next post, I’ll take a look at that legislation and consider some arguments for and against it.

Media Bias 2?

The Politico has a story about Congress and gun control. The online headline is “Congress slow to respond to shootings with legislation.” The print headline is even stronger: “All Talk, No Progress on Gun Control in Wake of V-Tech.”

This is a standard trope of perhaps unconscious bias. “Progress” is a good thing; if Congress has made “No Progress on Gun Control,” then that’s a bad thing. It’s like the frequent media lead “Congress failed today to pass national health insurance (or an increase in the minimum wage, or global warming restrictions, or campaign finance restrictions).”

Does one ever hear “Congress failed today to reduce taxes”? “No Progress on Deregulation”? I don’t think so. Journalists unconsciously assume that Congress should Do the Right Thing. When it doesn’t, that’s “failure” or “no progress.” Journalists and headline writers should try to find neutral language to describe Congress’s actions.

Europe’s Gas-Emitting Politicians

Imagine if the entire U.S. Congress moved from Washington to Cleveland for one week every month. Taxpayers would be justly outraged at the waste and foolishness, yet that is exactly what happens in Europe. The European Parliament leaves Brussels every month and spends a week in Strasbourg. The Parliamentarians so far have been impervious to arguments that they are wasting money, but they may be cowed by a new argument that they are contributing to global warming. The EU Observer reports on a new study showing that the monthly jaunt to Strasbourg increases greenhouse gas emissions:

The double seat arrangement of the European Parliament generates at least 20,000 extra tonnes of CO2 emissions – equalling 13,000 return flights from London to New York - according to a new study. The report … looks into the environmental costs of having two seats for the EU’s assembly - in Brussels and Strasbourg. … When a plenary session is held in Strasbourg once a month – it is empty for the remaining 307 days of the year - 1,220 officials and other servants of the parliament and political groups travel from Brussels to Strasbourg while another 525 travel from Luxembourg to Strasbourg. But it is not just people who have to get to the Alsatian capital but also all of their work paraphernalia. This means “fifteen lorries which ferry cupboards and tin trunks full of documents each month from Brussels or Luxembourg to Strasbourg and back again,” according to the report. As a whole, the costs of the “travelling circus” - as it is known by critics of the arrangement - amounts to around €200,000 per year, with the total cost of travelling plus the allowances people get for going to Strasbourg amounting to €18 million.

Media Bias?

According to the chart in this Washington Post article, the top 10 PACs in 2006, in order, were the left-feminist Emily’s List, the left-wing, the left-wing union SEIU, the left-Democratic ActBlue, three more unions, the NRA, and two Democratic PACs. So how did the accompanying story read? (Note that the PAC graphic goes with the third item in this column; that’s clear in the print paper but not so clear online.)

The item was headlined: Why Gun Control is a Long Shot

And the text began:

If you want to know why major new federal restrictions on firearms will be a hard sell despite the horrific shootings at Virginia Tech last week, here’s a leading reason: The National Rifle Association is one of the nation’s richest and most influential pressure groups.

Well, one of them, yes. But the other 9 of the top 10 are all liberal-to-left Democratic funders. The top two lefty PACs together raised almost six times as much in 2006 as the NRA. So did the top four unions. And two Democratic PACs that you probably haven’t heard of – America Coming Together and Forward Together – each raised just as much as the NRA.

Yeltsin the Hero

More than any other man, Boris Yeltsin moved the Russian people from tyranny to a rough approximation of freedom. For that he is one of the authentic heroes of the 20th century.

In a way he personalizes Mikhail Gorbachev’s accidental liberation of the Russian and Soviet people. Gorbachev intended to reform and reinvigorate communism. He brought Yeltsin from the rural region of Sverdlovsk in 1985 to shake up the stagnant party as the Moscow party boss. But Gorbachev set in motion forces that he couldn’t contain. Once people were allowed to criticize the communist system and glimpse an alternative, things moved rapidly–partly because of Yeltsin’s unexpectedly radical leadership.

Two years later Gorbachev and the party hierarchy pushed him out of the Politburo. But he turned around and ran for the Congress of People’s Deputies, won, and then was elected to the Supreme Soviet. He created Russia’s first parliamentary opposition (in the Supreme Soviet) and then won election to the new Russian parliament. Against the continuing opposition of Gorbachev, he was elected to the chairmanship of that body, thus becoming president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.  He stunned politicos by resigning from the Communist Party.

And then in 1991, less than four years after being pushed out of politics by Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin became the first elected leader in a thousand years of Russian history, winning a popular election for president. Six weeks later he hit his high point. When hard-line communists tried to stage a coup, Yeltsin courageously raced to parliament to rally opposition.  He jumped on a tank to address the crowd, creating one of the iconic images of the collapse of communism.

At that point Yeltsin was the boss, eclipsing Gorbachev, and the Soviet Union was on its way out. Yeltsin effectively dissolved the Soviet Union, leaving 15 newly independent states in the vast expanse that was once the USSR. As biographer John Morrison notes,

His greatest achievement was to avoid the violent “Yugoslav scenario” and allow the Soviet Union’s 15 republics to go their separate ways peacefully in 1991-92 without civil war. Yeltsin defied nationalist demands for the restoration of a greater Russia and made huge concessions to the other successor states, notably Ukraine, but got little credit for it.

Not many political leaders happily let their subjects go. What other political leader ever gave up control over 14 countries? But by doing so, he avoided years of bloodshed. Yeltsin then set about freeing prices and privatizing state property, the largest privatization in the history of the world. As the New York Times notes, he was one communist leader capable of learning from–and feeling shame about–the success of capitalism:

On a visit to the United States in 1989, he became convinced that Russia had been ruinously damaged by its state-run economic system, in which people stood in long lines to buy the most basic needs of life and more often than not found the shelves bare. Visiting a Houston supermarket, he was overwhelmed by the kaleidoscopic variety of meats and vegetables available to ordinary Americans.

A Russia scholar, Leon Aron, quoting a Yeltsin associate, wrote that Mr. Yeltsin was in a state of shock. “For a long time, on the plane to Miami, he sat motionless, his head in his hands,” Mr. Aron wrote in his 2000 biography, “Yeltsin, A Revolutionary Life.” “ ‘What have they done to our poor people?’ he said after a long silence.”

Yeltsin wasn’t perfect. He was often boorish and apparently had an excessive taste for alcohol. Despite letting the other Soviet republics go, he launched the devastating war in Chechnya. He unconstitutionally dissolved parliament in 1993; when communist lawmakers defied him, he sent tanks to shell parliament.  But it should be noted that Yeltsin at that time was seeking to defend liberal democracy against a return to communism. Imagine if Nazi legislators had stayed in the German parliament into 1949, resisting Adenauer’s policies and threatening to bring back National Socialism. Would it be undemocratic to call out the military to counter them? Fareed Zakaria’s worry in 1997 that Yeltsin’s creation of a “Russian super-presidency” might be abused by his successors looks all too prescient now. But a reversion to communism would have been worse.

And finally, after becoming the first elected leader in Russia’s history, he became something even more important–the first Russian leader to voluntarily give up power. True, he turned Russia over to Vladimir Putin, making him more like Ronald Reagan, who delivered the United States to the Bushes, than George Washington, who left us in the capable hands of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Still, the words that President Reagan addressed the American soldiers who invaded Normandy could also be applied to Boris Yeltsin: “These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”

Raise a glass tonight to Boris Yeltsin, the man who freed a continent and helped end the Cold War.