Some on the East Coast wondered if the election could go on with flooded polling stations and no electricity for the voting booths. Others, like Princeton University’s Ed Felten, wonder if electronic voting machines can be relied on to accurately tally votes under any circumstances.
Felten, the director of the university’s Center for Information Technology Policy, will give a post-election analysis on Sunday, November 11, from 8 to 9:15 a.m. at the Princeton United Methodist Church on the corner of Nassau Street and Vandeventer Avenue in Princeton. The event is open to the public, and breakfast will be served. Cost: $5 suggested donation. Register by Friday, November 9, at 609-924-2613 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
A native of Madison, Wisconsin, Felten attended the California Institute of Technology. After earning his bachelor’s in physics there in 1985 Felten stayed on in Cal Tech’s research laboratory. He received his Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Washington in 1993. He joined the Princeton faculty later that year and recently returned from a one-year term as the first-ever chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission. His blog, www.Freedom-to-Tinker.com, carries information on everything from voting machines to Spotify and Netflix.
His research interests include computer security and privacy as well as related public policy. He works on software security, internet security, cybersecurity, and more, but at this time of year issues with electronic voting machines are at top of mind. The chance that these machines will count wrong, Felten says, is of much greater concern than hanging chads or fraudulent absentee ballots.
Felten first made headlines when he challenged the security of the Sequoia Advantage voting machines that were used in the 2004 and 2008 elections in New Jersey. State election officials gave Felten and computer science professor Andrew Appel access to voting machines, and despite the threat of legal action from Sequoia that their research violated license agreements, Felten and Appel found flaws in the machines’ programming and determined they could be hacked quickly and easily.
In 2010 Sequoia was acquired by Diebold Election Systems, which later became Premier Election Solutions and was then sold to another competitor, Election Systems &Software. AVC Advantage models, previously made by Sequoia and now made by Dominion Voting Systems, continue to be used in Mercer County and throughout most of the state. And 12 years after the Bush v. Gore debacle, the potential for inaccuracies in electronic voting machines is as strong as ever.
“Computers tend to misbehave and errors, as we all know, are routine,” Felten told U.S. 1 in a 2008 interview.
Elections add an extra twist to the effort to prevent errors because ballots are secret, so if, for example, the total number of votes cast does not match with the total number of votes credited to candidates, there is no way to look back to when the error occurred. “This represents a true problem,” Felten said. “In the case of elections, with every voter’s ballot is a secret, there is no way of checking or rectifying a discrepancy.”
Sometimes it doesn’t even take a computer science degree to see potential security issues. In the days before elections, voting machines at some polling places are left out in the open in unlocked rooms. A hacker could easily enter and potentially alter the outcome of the election within minutes.
“It would take, suffice it to say, an expert in computer technology to do the programing, but he would only then have to get at the back of the machine and switch the computer chips,” Felten said.
As it turns out, however, an eighth-grade science education is all you need to hack into some of these machines. Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois reported in 2011 that hackers with basic science knowledge and around $10 in parts could alter a machine made by Diebold without leaving any evidence of their tampering.
In 2006 Felten’s team also discovered serious flaws with a Diebold machine, finding that malicious software planted on one machine to “steal” votes would be undetectable. Your vote for Obama? It was mysteriously deleted the minute you pressed the vote button.
While computer systems have their issues, old-fashioned human error is also a factor in tabulating votes. Clerks make counting mistakes as easily as computers, and a 100 percent accurate vote count is still an ideal, not a reality.
Security experts had held out hope that a partial solution was on its way: legislation passed in 2005 required voting machines used in the New Jersey to produce a paper trail that could be used to audit results.
The law was never implemented because of the cost of doing so, and in the meantime the use of direct recording electronic (paperless) voting machines has been held up by state courts.
Under normal conditions, vote counting is an imprecise art, and Hurricane Sandy isn’t helping. With battery backups that are less than reliable and limited paper ballots available, electronic voting machines were still counted on to count the votes in areas that had faced week-long power outages. May the best man or woman win.