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The Computer Scientist Who Prefers Voting With Paper (theatlantic.com) 219

Geoffrey.landis writes: The Atlantic profiles a computer scientist: Barbara Simons, who has been on the forefront of the pushback against electronic voting as a technology susceptible to fraud and hacking. When she first started writing articles about the dangers of electronic voting with no paper trail, the idea that software could be manipulated to rig elections was considered a fringe preoccupation; but Russia's efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election have reversed Simons's fortunes. According to the Department of Homeland Security, those efforts included attempts to meddle with the electoral process in 21 states; while a series of highly publicized hacks -- at Sony, Equifax, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management -- has driven home the reality that very few computerized systems are truly secure. Simons is a former President of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM); and the group she helps run, Verified Voting, has been active in educating the public about the dangers of unverified voting since 2003.

The Computer Scientist Who Prefers Voting With Paper

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  • by JoshuaZ ( 1134087 ) on Saturday November 11, 2017 @09:03AM (#55530491) Homepage
    Simons is one of the most prominent such, but definitely not the only one. This has been a vocal point being made by computer scientists and other security experts since at least the late 2000s.
    • by Ol Olsoc ( 1175323 ) on Saturday November 11, 2017 @09:39AM (#55530579)

      Simons is one of the most prominent such, but definitely not the only one. This has been a vocal point being made by computer scientists and other security experts since at least the late 2000s.

      Why on earth is this modded at 1? The ease with which computerized voting systems can be compromised has been shown over and over again, that I wouldn't be terribly surprised if the access was planned.

      Paper is not perfect, but at least it makes it a little harder to compromise.

    • by JaredOfEuropa ( 526365 ) on Saturday November 11, 2017 @09:46AM (#55530611) Journal
      The sad part is that it's not only security experts who should be saying this. Voting should not only be accurate, but that accuracy needs to be verifiable by laymen, and they should be able to understand the end-of-end process to tally and verify the count. Voting by computer violates that principle on a fundamental level.
      • by taiwanjohn ( 103839 ) on Saturday November 11, 2017 @10:07AM (#55530693)

        Paper ballots are used here in Taiwan, and they are counted, by hand, in public view immediately after polls close. Results are usually complete within a few hours. Ironically, this system was instituted under the KMT single-party regime to facilitate vote buying.

        The voting is done by putting a stamp in a square on the paper, rather than filling in a circle with a pen (or punching a hole, etc.). So, by stamping the ballot in a particular way -- say, in the upper left corner, slanted to the left -- you'd indicate to the vote buyer that you'd fulfilled your end of the bargain. Vote buying is now pretty much a thing of the past, but the legacy of this highly open and public system has served the country well in its transition to one of the more thriving democracies in the region.

        But this is not unique to Taiwan, lots of countries use paper ballots. The USA is really "backward" in this regard.

        • In the USA, the problem with hand counted paper ballots is that, on election day, we frequently have about 20-30 different positions and referenda to vote on.

          Where I vote, they have paper ballots, but they are machine counted. There is a record that can be checked for accuracy.

          • by dryeo ( 100693 )

            Perhaps that should be changed. Here in Canada, we have a Federal system with a country made up of sovereign Provinces (and non-sovereign territories). We have an election for the Federal government and we have a different election for our respective Provincial government, each Province being in charge of their elections. Then municipal elections happen on a different day.
            When I vote federally, I pick one name from a short list of usually 6-12 names. Likewise when I vote provincially. Municipal are more com

      • Voting should not only be accurate, but that accuracy needs to be verifiable by laymen, and they should be able to understand the end-of-end process to tally and verify the count. Voting by computer violates that principle on a fundamental level.

        As long as there's some form of paper record which can be verified later, it doesn't actually matter if a person can understand the process by which the vote is tallied. You should always do a certain percentage of randomly-selected verification to check that your method is working, no matter what it is — even if it is paper ballots. And as long as the piece of paper is allocated and/or designed such that it can't be used for vote buying, it doesn't cause new problems. Just let the voter see the paper

        • To some extent. The problem is that a lot depends on how and where you keep your paper records. The more they are moved, aggregated and the longer they are stored, the more opportunity there is to tamper with them, and on a larger scale.
          • To some extent. The problem is that a lot depends on how and where you keep your paper records. The more they are moved, aggregated and the longer they are stored, the more opportunity there is to tamper with them, and on a larger scale.

            Paper records should never be moved or aggregated. Preferably, each polling station would have an individual safe where they are placed until the next election. The main advantages of paper ballots is the decentralization,the accountability and the ability to do a recount. You lose all that if they are aggregated. The polling stations should send their totals to the county where they become public record and those totals are sent to the state and then to the federal where again the aggregate totals are

            • by dryeo ( 100693 )

              Around here, the polling places are usually school gyms or churches. Don't know if it would be practical to store the ballots permanently there. Of course our elections are simple enough that the common man can hang out all day and witness the voting and counting if they choose.
              The weakness is the absentee votes, which should be stored like you say, at least until the final count is done. Last election here (BC), it took 6 weeks to finalize that it was basically a tie, 43-41-3 and weeks more for the legisla

              • Around here, the polling places are usually school gyms or churches. Don't know if it would be practical to store the ballots permanently there.

                With paper ballots there would be a lot less to store than all the machines that are currently stored. It would be easy enough to supply a safe to each school/church but most churches and schools likely already have a safe so putting the ballots in a tamper proof box in a third party safe would likely be even better as then the ability to get access to all the different safes would be even more difficult. I also would have no problem with the ballots being put in individual safety deposit boxes or even se

                • by dryeo ( 100693 )

                  Never really thought about the logistics of storing all those machines. Another negative with voting machines.
                  Is there really any reason to keep the ballots after the election results have been certified? Generally the first count is enough to result in a clear winner with a few disputes that don't really affect the overall result.
                  When it does matter, such as our last Provincial election, most of the ridings (districts) had a clear winner, the close ones went through automatic recounts including digging out

                  • Never really thought about the logistics of storing all those machines. Another negative with voting machines.

                    And unfortunately many of them are stored in highly unsecure locations.

                    Is there really any reason to keep the ballots after the election results have been certified? 6 weeks and it was all over, which was longer then usual but once over, why keep the ballots?

                    The main reason to keep them for at least a couple years is if questions come up about the legitimacy of the election. 6 weeks is before the new guy is even in office. Once the ballots are destroyed, it would be much easier for a bad actor to change the totals. With an election, you have to always assume the worst which is that the people doing the certifiying and/or making the voting machines are potential bad actors.

          • The way it works in Australia is that each time the papers are not being actively used (e.g. counted), they are sealed and the seal numbers are recorded. Then when they are opened again, the seals are checked.

            The system is so strict that if there is any significant discrepancy, a fresh election is called [wikipedia.org].

          • You can have central storage with boxes labeled by the precinct they came from. Since they've been pre-counted by machine, any serious attempt to change the vote later will raise suspicion.

            This doesn't necessarily apply to really close elections, like Franken-Coleman in Minnesota 2008, but if the vote's that close it doesn't really matter for fairness which candidate is eventually selected.

      • Democracy is the most stable form of government because anyone who has the money and support to overthrow the government has the money and support to win an election, so take the safer route and win at the ballot box. That only works if they trust the voting system, and that requires understanding the voting system. Even if you can make a secure electronic voting system, you'll never be able to prove that to the average voter, so you lose the main advantage of Democracy.
    • Yup, it's a bullshit title. Non-technologists seem to expect technologists to want to see high-tech solutions to everything, but serious technologists know that isn't always wise.

      Bruce Schneier has [schneier.com] been saying [schneier.com] for over a decade that US elections shouldn't be made fully electronic.

    • My State votes on paper in human-readable form and then uses computers to tabulate it. It works really well, you can have people from both parties standing there watching the ballots feed in and watching the counters go up! And you can re-count by hand. Best of both worlds.

    • The best solution has always been mark-sense ballots done with _permanent_ ink. That way, the ballots are both hand-count and machine-count readable and we don't have the nasty "hanging chad" issue that plagued punched paper ballots.

  • "The"? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by RyanFenton ( 230700 ) on Saturday November 11, 2017 @09:15AM (#55530517)

    Shouldn't it be "the overwhelming majority of computer scientists who've even casually looked at voting security" in favor of paper ballots over the current implementation of computerized voting? Hasn't this been the case for well over a decade?

    Ryan Fenton

    • Re:"The"? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Mal-2 ( 675116 ) on Saturday November 11, 2017 @09:26AM (#55530549) Homepage Journal

      Shouldn't it be "the overwhelming majority of computer scientists who've even casually looked at voting security" in favor of paper ballots over the current implementation of computerized voting? Hasn't this been the case for well over a decade?

      Unfortunately, the flipped statement is also true. The overwhelming majority of people opposing the current implementation of computerized voting are computer scientists who have even casually looked at voting security. This makes for a fairly small group, and they deserve the assistance of those of us not qualified in CS but who think they're almost certainly right.

      • Unfortunately, the flipped statement is also true. The overwhelming majority of people opposing the current implementation of computerized voting are computer scientists who have even casually looked at voting security. This makes for a fairly small group, and they deserve the assistance of those of us not qualified in CS but who think they're almost certainly right.

        There are scientists out there who can have their opinion bought.

        So if I read you correctly, you are saying that a system that requires private physical access to a huge number of ballot boxes is less secure than a system that is the equivalent security wise, of Internet of Things security cams?

        I'd be pretty reluctant to hire a security expert or computer scientist that believes such a thing. Then again, there are people who belive we never wnet to the moon.

        • by Mal-2 ( 675116 )

          I think you have completely misunderstood me.

          What I was saying is that while computer science and security experts understand the danger, they are just about the only group that does. They need help getting the word out, because the public writes them off as alarmists even in the face of clear evidence that they are right.

          • When I get into discussions, I also raise the ability of most people to clearly understand that the process is fair. In a democracy, it's at least as necessary to assure the voting public that they weren't cheated as to select a winner.

  • THIS ARTICLE IS POSTED AS THOUGH THIS WOULD SURPRISE US

    We are well versed in these disciplines, none of this surprises us.

    Sure, there are always kids around this site, many of whom probably think we can do this securely with blockchain or some other shit.

    THOSE KIDS WILL GROW UP, GAIN EXPERIENCE, AND COME TO THE SAME REALISATION AS THE ADULTS

    USE PAPER

    • Re:USE PAPER!!! (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Baron_Yam ( 643147 ) on Saturday November 11, 2017 @09:37AM (#55530573)

      Actually... hybrid is best. Vote with paper, scan and tally with computers. If there is any doubt, you have the original paper watched over by election officials to verify.

      • CORRECT: USE PAPER

      • Or vote with computers, but produce paper (and show the voter the printout behind glass for verification) as a backup. Whatever method you use, it's critical to produce a paper ballot which is either created or verified by the voter. With that, at least you can go back and look for fraud.

        • >Or vote with computers, but produce paper

          I disagree. If the computer is handling the voting, it's easier to corrupt the process, and an equipment malfunction means the poll is closed.

          Paper and pencils - vulnerable to fire and theft, but not much else. (And yes, pencils, because they don't dry up in storage, their marks don't run if the ballot gets wet, and you can still see traces of the old mark if someone tries to erase and replace it)

  • by Gim Tom ( 716904 ) on Saturday November 11, 2017 @09:59AM (#55530667)
    I have been trying to get people I know in my state to request an absentee paper ballot for each election and use it to cast their vote. The process here is very easy, with virtually no tests for actually needing to vote absentee. Perhaps this should be done nation wide as much as possible. If the VOTERS overwhelmed the ballot boxes with absentee paper ballots that might just send the message that computers should not be used for voting!

    My state still uses the old Diebold DRE machines that CAN NOT be audited. I was on the evaluation group when they were chosen after the 2000 election and was a lone voice pointing out their lack of security and impossibility of being audited or having a valid recount.
  • by berj ( 754323 ) on Saturday November 11, 2017 @10:15AM (#55530727)

    The ballots we use up here (and the system we use to count and track them) are amazing.

    The voter goes to a table where the ballots are handed out by elections officials. The ballot has the candidate's names in alphabetical order and a removable counterfoil that has a serial number that matches against the book that the ballot was torn from. The official puts their initials on the ballot and hands it to the voter. The voter goes behind the screen and marks the ballot and folds it. The counterfoil and initials are still visible.

    The voter hands the ballot back to the offical who checks both the signature and the serial number on the counterfoil (this ensures the voter has returned the ballot they got). The counterfoil is then removed and now the ballot is completely anonymous. The voter then gets the ballot back and she places it in the ballot box in front of the official.

    When it comes time to count the votes, the elections officials count all of the ballots in the presence of other non-partisan officials as well as the candidates themselves or their representatives -- a vote isn't recorded until everyone has seen and verified the ballot. Once everything is counted and verified (does the number of ballots counted match the number given out and returned by voters, etc) the tally is made on paper and the ballots themselves are sealed up and passed up the chain. They are kept for 7 days in case a recount is needed.

    The great thing about this system is that it scales to any population size since the ballots are counted right there at the polling station, box by box and verified on the spot.

    It's certainly not perfect and there are some opportunities for tampering but nothing even in the same universe as the kind of wide-spread hacking that can occur with electronic systems.

    more detail:

    http://www.elections.ca/conten... [elections.ca]

    http://www.elections.ca/conten... [elections.ca]

    • Since I post too much and never get any mod points, all I can give you is a virtual +1 Informative.

    • What it doesn't scale to is US-style ballots with at least two dozen races or questions on a given ballot. Counting those by hand at the polling place is going to be difficult at best.

  • Finally (Score:4, Insightful)

    by markdavis ( 642305 ) on Saturday November 11, 2017 @10:22AM (#55530743)

    I have been complaining for many years, ever since my State ditched the simple and effective "punch cards" and went to horrible touch-screen computer voting. It removed every trace of auditing capability and introduced a system that not only could be horribly abused or hacked, but also made it easy to track the identity of who voted- clearly violating the principles of confidentiality of voting.

    Finally, this November, my State switched to paper ballots. The voter is registered as usual, then given a generic paper ballot, and just marks on the paper what they want, and the voter inserts it into a machine that reads it and stores the sheet of paper securely. Cheap, simple, easy-to-use, 100% verifiable, and anonymous. I only hope that every State follows such an example.

    The next challenge is to get ranked/IRV (Instant Runoff Voting). Then things can really start to change for the positive.

    http://fairvote.org/ [fairvote.org]

  • Hybrid required. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Gravis Zero ( 934156 ) on Saturday November 11, 2017 @10:34AM (#55530781)

    People seem to praise paper ballots like they are flawless but they forget that ballot box stuffing and corrupt vote counters existed before we invented the computer.

    What we need is a hybrid system of human readable votes and computerized automation. While generally hyped as a technology a information for a blockchain could be stored both on the paper ballot and voting machine memory to ensure no votes had been inserted, erased or altered. Using this methodology with a series of isolated single microcontroller systems not just air-gapped but lacking the basic hardware needed for network communication would combined with signed binaries and radiation-hardened software (yes, that's a thing) would radically improve security.

    We have the technology to fix this problem and remove all single points of failure but have yet to do it.

  • Do I have this right? We have "progressive" organizations (called such in the article) that fought hard for electronic voting machines. Trump gets elected. Now they want paper.

    There's been suspicions among "right wing" groups that these "progressives" have been using absentee voting and electronic voting machines to make vote fraud easier. The progressive candidates get their head handed to them on a platter in an election a year ago and NOW they think electronic voting is a bad idea?

    There's a part of m

  • "The" (Score:5, Insightful)

    by bistromath007 ( 1253428 ) on Saturday November 11, 2017 @10:38AM (#55530797)
    All computer scientists worthy of the name prefer paper voting.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 11, 2017 @10:39AM (#55530799)

    It's really "information theory and practice". If people whose first idea usually is to use a computer tell you not to use a computer for an information gathering and processing job, you should take heed. You know they have tried everything to make it work with their favorite tool, but they still ended up recommending against it.

  • that there were Al Gore presidential election style shenanigans going on in at least Wisconsin. The only real question was why Hilary didn't push for a recount. The theory is she was so shocked by losing that it demoralized her. I could see that. She never for a moment thought she'd lose even with shenanigans. The dumb ass actually believed in that 'blue firewall' and 'Changing demographics' crap. That's not being in a bubble, that's being in a lead lined box at the bottom of the ocean.

    Basically if you'
  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Saturday November 11, 2017 @12:49PM (#55531365) Homepage Journal

    The editors seem to think a computer scientist would be expected to think digital only voting is a good idea.

    Do you know anyone with expertise in computer science or engineering who thinks paperless voting is a good idea? I mean excluding people who work for companies that make the machines? Can you name even a single respected independent computer security expert who favors the damn things?

    The overwhelming consensus among people who know anything is that paperless voting is a terrible idea.

  • Errrm, and your point being?

    Everyone with 2+ braincells to rub together prefers voting with paper. Every computer expert on the entire planet says computer driven voting is generally a notably stupid idea. It's only dimwits and people who want power and have a solid interest in controlling elections that want computers as a middle man for votes.

    This is news from more than 2 decades ago.

  • by Tangential ( 266113 ) on Saturday November 11, 2017 @04:14PM (#55532219) Homepage
    The idea of totally electronic voting tells me that people care about their vote about as much as they care about their privacy. We see how poorly secured and hackable all of our systems are everyday. If someone wants a computer screen to facilitate the creation of a paper ballot and (Maybe) to provide an alternate count to check against I think most IT professionals would support that.
  • Not too difficult. Whatever the UI is, let the ballot be generated, and then a paper receipt printed for me to compare with the on-screen tally. If I approve, I click 'Accept' and take my receipt to the counters, where it is scanned and returned to me.

    Later I can go to the web site and validate that my vote was counted as expected, either with the scancode or GUID.

    Counting is immediate, accuracy is within my hands, and I can even self-select to be part of a QA process that audits the blockchain and confirms

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