Stanford Professor Pushes Verifiable Voting System

This story was written by Nikhil Kamat, The Stanford Daily
With the upcoming general presidential election in November, the controversy surrounding electronic voting machines has become a top national priority, according to Stanford University Computer Science Professor David Dill.

Dill is the founder of VerifiedVoting.org, a nonprofit organization that advocates for reliable and publicly verifiable voting systems.

Partly as a result of the activism of organizations like VerifiedVoting.org, there has been a wave of state-wide legislation over the past few years requiring that voter-verifiable paper ballots be available to supplement electronic tabulations. These ballots ensure a paper trail that can unequivocally confirm election outcomes. Dill said that the inability to reliably track and secure computerized voting records has the potential to jeopardize the validity of close wins and reduces public faith in the electoral system.

"Transparency is a combination of two things: one of those things is being able to watch things happen, and the other is to be able to go back and check," Dill said. "With electronic voting, from a computer science perspective, there's no way to inspect the externals or internals of the machine or software and determine that it is accurate because it is too complicated to do by the means."

California, one of 13 states requiring manual election audits, has not been free of the electronic voting controversy. California Secretary of State Debra Bowen recently authorized a security review of several electronic voting systems used in the state. The investigation resulted in the decertification of four separate vendors of voting equipment.

Although California requires electronic voting machines to produce printed tabulations of the votes registered in the machines, Dill said there were severe problems with the equipment that could have resulted in very serious consequences for future elections.

"In every system it seemed that there was some way to introduce a virus into the system during one election that could completely take over the election system in the next election," Dill said. "The person attacking the system just needed to have a little alone time with the machines, which is easy because a lot of these machines are just dropped off at poll workers' houses."

The lack of oversight over electronic voting equipment has had serious consequences in other states, according to Dill. In Florida, which was the focal point of the 2000 presidential election controversy, recent failures in electronic voting equipment may have contributed to an unresolved wrongful election of a candidate.

"What you don't want is something like the 2006 election in Sarasota, Florida, where a lot of votes just seem to be missing from the machine and it determined the outcome of a Congressional race," Dill said. "I believe that the wrong person was elected, and if you look at it statistically, that's the way it works out, but a legal case could not be made."

VerifiedVoting.org advocates for election transparency and verifiable voting by acting as an information resource to educate others, Dill said. The organization points legislators to legislation passed in other states as models for appropriate verification mechanisms and addresses claims regarding the relative expense of paper ballots compared to electronic voting.

"People will make incorrect claims about state, and especially national, laws about electronic voting," said Dill. "In one local state or community, people could make some problem sound totally insolvable, when in fact it's routinely solved in other places. Once you know that and have that perspective, it's easier to get something done."

In the 2008 election, Dill plans to continue with his advocacy by educating the public and legislators nd providing accurate information that can help create reasonable solutions. Dill emphasized that the intersection of politics with complex technical challenges necessitates the involvement of technical experts like computer scientists and engineers in public policy debates.

"When I first started, I felt that the need here was to understand the problem myself and explain it to other people," said Dill. "The role of a technologist here ought to make the technology accessible to the people who really need to understand it."
© 2008 The Stanford Daily via U-WIRE
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