Friday, December 14, 2007

Brunner Reports On Electronic Voting, and the News is Not Good

Earlier today, Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner released the Evaluation and Validation of Election-Related Equipment, Standards, and Testing report (or the EVEREST report). Early Enquirer coverage is here; the full, eighty-plus page report is here.

Brunner devised a remarkably aggressive evaluation protocol, engaging both a private consultant and academic researchers to test the integrity of the voting systems used in Ohio. The Hart voting machines, used here in Hamilton County, got particularly low marks. How's this for scary?

The researchers concluded that virtually every ballot, vote, election result, and audit log is “forgeable or otherwise manipulatable by an attacker with even brief access to the voting systems.” The reason is that the mechanisms that Hart uses to protect data and software is frequently based on absent or flawed security models. The researchers concluded that “in most cases these issues cannot be addressed via software upgrades, but call for rethinking of both technical design and procedural practices.”

(EVEREST report at 44.) The Enquirer article mentions some of the EVEREST report's recommendations (particularly the suggestion that votes be centrally scanned and tabulated, a process that Hamilton County BOE officials think could take four days). From a voter's standpoint, the most notable proposal is one the Enquirer misses: Brunner recommends (at pages 77-80 of the report) that polling places that consist of fewer than five precincts be eliminated, and that "Voting Centers" consisting of 5 to 10 precincts each be created. Moreover, she suggests a true "early voting" system through which the "centers" would be open beginning fifteen days prior to Election Day. (And if BOE officials are permitted to scan (but not tabulate) ballots at the end of each day, that may solve the purportedly long wait-time for results created by centralization of counting.)

That's two huge changes, one of which I support but the other I view with some skepticism. Early voting seems like a good idea that should be implemented. We should always be looking to create more opportunities for citizens to participate in the electoral process. I'm concerned with the notion of large "Voting Centers," though, and the impact that change would have on the indigent and marginally indigent. The advantage of single-precinct polling places is that people don't have to travel far to get to their polling place. Consolidating them inevitably means a longer trip for many people, and we should be concerned about what effect that would have on voter participation. Perhaps the two week period for voting would make this a non-issue, but I'm not convinced that the EVEREST group fully considered the potential problem.

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