by Gary Beckwith
As time goes by, we use computers for more and more things in our lives. Just a few years ago ordering products online unheard of. Today many of us have a small computer in our pockets that we use to keep track of everything from our shopping list to our bank accounts. We rely on our computers so much, we are almost dependent on them.
One of the places that computers have crept into our world is in the nuts and bolts of our democracy – our election and voting system. Today the vast majority of votes in our country are cast or counted on computers. While this is potentially a good thing because computers are generally better than people at counting, the rush to computerized voting introduces many risks to the integrity of our elections, several of which are going completely unchecked.
The problem is that computers aren’t perfect. We all know this because we’ve had computers crash, freeze, and produce errors many times. Sometimes programmers make a mistake and a bug in the program produces incorrect results, unintentionally. Computers are also prone to intentional attacks by hackers. Recently some of the world’s most secure and sophisticated computer systems have been compromised. One has to ask, if someone can hack into the CIA website, could they hack into the voting system? And could a simple software bug cause the computers to count improperly? What if the computers freeze or crash while they’re counting? Is our democracy protected against all the things that can and do go wrong with computers?
The sad but true answer is we are not protected. Computerized voting means less work for voting officials, but it means more opportunity for errors and fraud. While most of us have virus protection programs on our home computers and we update the software constantly to keep the viruses away, most computers that count votes have no such protection. In fact several independent studies by some of the world’s most knowledgeable computer security experts have shown how easy it is for a hacker to change election results today and go completely undetected.
The most comprehensive study to date, referred to as “The Brennan Report,” was conducted by the William Brennan Center for Justice. The advisors on the report included the heads of computer security for Microsoft and Lawrence Livermore Labs, as well as an array of computer science professors from around the world, so they know what they’re talking about. The report found stated that there are “significant security and reliability vulnerabilities, which pose a real danger to the integrity of national, state, and local elections.”
Vermont is a little better off than some other states because we have a law requiring paper ballots. Even though these ballots are counted by computers, this at least ensures there is a permanent record of every voter’s intent, which could be recounted. However, the Brennan Report specifically discusses serious security concerns with the optical scanner system we use to count the ballots here in Vermont. It showed that with the current safeguards in place, a single person could change the results of an election without being detected.
Recent stories like James O’Keefe’s video showing how easy it was for him to vote without an ID, we have to keep in mind that this type of threat would require hundreds or thousands of people to coordinate and commit a felony, in order to actually affect an election. With the security concerns of the computers and scanners however, a single person or just one line of bad code could alter the election results, and go completely undetected.
While the Brennan Report shows there are big problems, it also concludes that the problems could be fixed fairly easily. It provides a list of steps that should be taken to safeguard the integrity of the elections. The cornerstone of these safeguards is to conduct random audits on the scanners – this means a small number of ballots are randomly chosen, counted by hand, compared to the computer count. This is a simple and cost-effective way to check that the scanners are working properly and to protect our democracy. Currently Vermont has no audit requirement on elections, and only a few audits have ever been conducted. There are at least 8 simple security recommendations from the Brennan Report that Vermont is not following.
Unfortunately it’s about to get a lot worse, if a bill currently before the state Legislature becomes a law. H.298 ensures that people will NOT look at or count the ballots, even in a recount: It says that only the computers can count. A recount has long been the final safeguard, and the very reason why paper ballots are a good thing. Just like everyone says, if there’s ever a question we can always check the ballots and recount, right? Wrong. c requires that recounts are done by the optical scanners, not people.
The problem is that while computers can be better at counting than humans, they are also more consistent. If they make a mistake, if they had bad programming, or they were hacked, they would do the same thing over and over again – for example, in a recount. In other words, the recount establishes nothing more than that the computers counted the same way twice. Was it counted correctly? No one knows. Do people care? I think we should.
Vermonters’ views on political issues varies quite a bit. But most people agree, we want our votes to be counted correctly. Vermonters for Voting Integrity is a non-partisan group of concerned citizens that advocates for improvements to the security of Vermont’s electronic voting system so we can have confidence in our election results. We urge people to contact their state Senators and ask them to vote NO on H.298 (it has already passed the House). We urge the Secretary of State and the Legislature to take steps to follow the recommendations of the Brennan Report and the simple procedures listed in Verified Voting’s “Best Practices For Post Election Audits.”
Gary Beckwith is director of Vermonters for Voting Integrity. For more information visit vtvoters.org.