Electronic Voting: If It Is Good Enough For Congress

Congress is currently considering H.R. 811 "The Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007" which would require that all electronic voting machines used in federal elections produce a "voter verified paper audit trail." The hope is that paper audit trails would make our elections more secure by preventing certain types of digital attacks on voting machines. The problem is that they introduce new costs and risks but yield few benefits.

The activists promoting paper audit trails argue that on existing electronic voting machines, voters do not know if their ballot was cast as intended. They argue that voters need paper audit trail so that they can verify the accuracy of their ballots. However, even with a paper audit trail voters still have no way of verifying that their ballots were included in the final vote tally. The paper ballot or electronic ballot may be lost, altered or destroyed in transit to the central polling location. Historically, most election fraud occurs at this point.

Opponents of electronic voting claim that computers cannot be trusted. They have played on the public's fears to construct an image of a politically-motivated, computer-savvy criminal mastermind who can alter an election with the click of a mouse. Rep. Kucinich (D-OH) has even gone so far as to introduce legislation which would ban all electronic voting machines in federal elections. His solution: hand counted paper ballots.

The irony here is that when Congress votes on H.R. 811, each representative will cast their vote using an electronic voting system. Since 1973 the House of Representatives has used an electronic voting system for all recorded votes. So does this electronic voting system use paper trails? Of course not.

Instead of paper ballots, this system depends on a principle called "universal verifiability." Basically, any system with universal verifiability lets any voter and observer verify that the final vote tally is correct. The House of Representatives achieves universal verifiability by making the votes public. When members vote, a green or red light appears next to their name on a large electronic board behind the Speaker's desk. Everybody can observe the voting process and ensure no shenanigans occur.

Obviously this exact system would not work in a federal election because we use a private ballot. However, experts have come up with many ideas about how to both provide universal verifiability and keep everyone's ballot private. This may sound like magic to some people, but as ITIF's Daniel Castro notes in a new report, Stop the Presses: How Paper Trails Fail to Secure e-Voting, the cryptography behind these voting schemes has been peer-reviewed and tested by computer security experts. Unfortunately, since the pro-paper versus anti-paper debate has taken up so much time, Congress has paid little attention to these other solutions.

More secure voting systems are critical. However, regardless of how Congress votes, paper audit trails are not the final evolution of voting machines. The move to digital ballots is inevitable. Congress should now focus on how to improve America's voting systems so that they offer the same level of universal verifiability that each member of Congress expects when they cast their own votes.