Electronic voting machines have become a hot button issue this election year, with many computer scientists and privacy activists trying to raise concerns about machine security and the prospect of election tampering. Many election officials, on the other hand, point out that the machines make it easier for them to serve voters who are visually impaired or speak languages other than English (you can program in a lot more languages than you can afford to print ballots for), as well as eliminate the potential for “overvoting” (voting for more than one candidate, which invalidated many ballots in Florida in the 2000 presidential election).
The issues are complicated, but New York Times columnist David Pogue has done a nice job of sorting some of them out in his last two weekly e-mail columns, of July 8 and July 15. He tries particularly to figure out whether the security risks are as great as computer scientists have claimed–a big sticking point in these discussions. One comment he received from Rice University computer scientist Dan Wallach is particularly troubling to me as a Texan: the physical security of the machines really isn’t all that terrific here, which makes it that much easier to cause problems with insecure software. Wallach says:
“Here in Texas, where early voting lasts maybe two weeks or so, I’ve learned that the poll workers take the machines home with them at night. Imagine the opportunity, in the comfort and privacy of your home, to ‘upgrade’ the software on these machines. The tamper-resistance measures they take (special tape or numbered tie-wrap seals) can be easily gotten around if you’ve got the time and privacy to work on it. Some election officials require that their poll workers pass basic background checks (i.e., they have no felony convictions), but that’s hardly reassuring.”
Pogue makes a number of other interesting points, and the two columns are worth a read to get a handle on this important issue.