We are contracting out primary responsibility for running elections to private companies who are not publicly accountable,” warned New York City Board of Elections Commissioner Douglas Kellner. Kellner’s comments along with Harvard University e-voting expert Rebecca Mercuri were delivered at a Sept. 23 forum about electronic voting technology at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). Both speakers explained the vulnerability of electronic voting systems to insider and outsider attacks which they believe creates new opportunities for large scale vote fraud in the 2004 election and beyond.
This November one-third of New Jersey voting districts will use computerized machines that, according to Kellner and Mercuri, “provide no way to validate that your vote is being cast and counted as you intended. There is no way to perform an independent recount.”
Decrying what they labeled “black box voting,” Kellner and Mercuri emphasized that e-voting technology is sold to municipalities under trade secret agreements that prevent anyone but the vendor from inspecting the computer codes in the software. “It’s illegal to open the box,” said Mercuri. “There needs to be transparency at every point in the voting process,” Kellner added, “but with e-voting, there is no way for sure to know that there hasn’t been tampering.”
Mercuri argued that, unlike localized ballot box stuffing of the past, e-voting now makes it possible for a lone insider to rig an entire national election without getting caught. “Traditional lever-action voting machines and paper ballot boxes can be tampered with,” said Mercuri, “but it is difficult, and you have to do it one machine, one box at a time. And you are likely to leave evidence.” Because many thousands of e-voting machines use the same software, one bit of code tampering can “have global effect and be entirely invisible,” Mercuri explained. “By shifting one vote on each e-voting machine, you could change the electoral college count. That one vote shift would simply seem to be noise in the system. It would be undetectable. The perfect crime.”
Mercuri gave several examples of such possible software tampering, including “nefarious code designed to be triggered only when the actual election began.” Such code would be undetectable in the pre-election test mode, Mercuri said.
Both Kellner and Mercuri were skeptical of the existing pre-election procedures for certifying that e-voting machines have not been tampered with. Mercuri dismissed the certification process as “a waving of hands.” “The vendors themselves pay the people who do the inspecting of the voting machines, in secret, and they certify all machines of the same type after inspecting only a small sample. There is no way to corroborate that the machines actually used are the same as those inspected,” Mercuri insisted.
Noting that “election officials are unskilled at detecting this kind of fraud,” Kellner called for greater accountability. “We need to hold e-voting machine vendors to the same standards we hold election officials. We must demand transparency.”
Mercuri and Kellner’s presentation was the first in NJIT’s new technology and society forum series. The series is designed to stimulate conversation between the experts and members of the community about the social implications of cutting-edge technologies. The next talk is set for Oct. 18, when Ira Black, MD, professor and chairman of the department of neuroscience and cell biology at the University for Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, will discuss how new developments in his stem cell research point toward future cures for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injuries, and birth defects. On Nov 10, internationally-known physicist Freeman Dyson, PhD, of the Institute for Advance Studies at Princeton will explore the ramifications of genetic engineering.