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.

Irish Policy Makers Resist Tax Harmonization

Tax-news.com reports on the growing concern in Ireland about European Union plans to harmonize the definition of taxable income for corporations. Such a scheme, particularly if it is voluntary, is not automatically objectionable. But Irish lawmakers correctly fear that a common tax base is merely the first step on the path to harmonized (and higher) tax rates:

European Union Taxation Commissioner Laszlo Kovacs has reportedly told Irish business leaders that formal plans for a common EU corporate tax base will be unveiled by the European Commission next week. …despite Kovacs’s assurances that the system would be optional for businesses, many member states, including Ireland, are strongly opposed to the CCCTB plans, wary that it would be the first step towards the harmonisation of corporate tax rates across the EU, an idea favoured by France and Germany. If this was the case, Ireland would certainly have a lot to lose, as its 12.5% corporate tax rate has been cited as a major ingredient in Ireland’s economic revival in recent years, and investors certainly would not welcome European interference with Ireland’s corporate tax regime. Consequently, organisations such as IBEC, and Irish politicians, have been lobbying in opposition of CCCTB. …Irish MEP Eoin Ryan…told MEPs that he “cannot and will not accept” moves towards a common corporate tax base. “Tax competition is healthy for the economic development of the European Union. It provides a clear incentive to European Governments to manage their public finances carefully and to build a corporate tax regime that encourages enterprise,” he stated. “The bottom line here is that no one size fits all policy covering corporate taxation matters in Europe is going to succeed. It is neither sensible nor realistic to seek convergence of corporate tax rates across Europe. EU member states have different demographic and social priorities. EU member states need to use their corporate taxation policies in different ways so as to entice foreign direct investment into their countries and generate employment.”

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.

European Commission Continues Attack on Swiss Tax System

A Swiss newspaper reports on the latest skirmish in the Brussels-led effort to hinder
Switzerland’s ability to maintain pro-growth tax policy. The European Commission argues that low tax rates are somehow akin to a subsidy, while also arguing that a free-trade agreement between Switzerland and the European Union somehow obliges
Switzerland to modify its tax laws. But the most revealing part of the story is that both the socialists and the so-called conservatives in the European Parliament are in favor of this attack on tax competition:

The European Union has once again taken Switzerland to task for its policy on corporate taxes, which it claims violates a free trade accord with Bern. …Earlier this week senior EU diplomats approved a mandate for talks between the Commission and Switzerland. Brussels argues that the practice of some cantons of partially exempting profits generated abroad from local company taxes is in breach of the 1972 agreement between Bern and Brussels. However, Switzerland which is not a member of the EU, has consistently said that corporate tax and the tax policies of the cantons were never parts of the free trade agreement. …The two main political groups in Strasbourg: the Conservatives and Social Democrats, supported the European Commission in its position against Bern.

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This Is a Republic

Queen Elizabeth II is coming to Washington and Jamestown, and the Washington Post offers advice in case you should happen to meet her.

You don’t have to curtsy or bow. That requirement went out a generation ago.

Um, actually, the United States is a republic. (“And to the republic for which it stands.”) That requirement went out in 1776.

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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.

Give Us Back Our Monopoly!

The governor of Ohio is threatening to kill most school choice in his state, and several leaders of urban school districts are doing all they can to help him. If you ever wanted to know what really motivates people like this, your answer is clear as day in this Cleveland Plain Dealer article:

Columbus — Leaders of Ohio’s eight big-city school districts are lobbying lawmakers this week to support Gov. Ted Strickland’s proposal to ban for-profit charter schools and ax a statewide school-voucher program.

“We strongly support his position that for-profit entities not operate in our state,” said Cleveland schools CEO Eugene Sanders, co-chairman of the Ohio 8, a coalition of superintendents and teachers union presidents from the state’s largest districts. “We think those funds can more appropriately be used in a public school context.…”

The school leaders want legislators to know they are weary of watching students, as well as tens of millions of tax dollars, fly out of their coffers and into the hands of charter schools — independent public schools that are privately run but publicly funded.

Simply put: Lousy competition is kicking our butts. We want our monopoly back!