The Internet is a strange and unpredictable place, filled with cats playing keyboard and Rick Astley videos. It’s the kind of place you wouldn’t want your ballot floating around without protection. So, ever since the widespread adoption of electronic voting machines, voters and election administrators alike have feared for the safety of votes traveling through the Internet tubes.
Five voters in Hawaii, concerned about the accuracy and safety of electronically transmitted ballots, filed suit against Chief Election Officer Kevin Cronin to prevent the use of electronic voting machines in the 2010 elections. The suit, Babson v. Cronin, resulted from the Hawaii Office of Election’s decision to use Direct-Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines in the 2010 elections. DRE voting machines eliminate the need for paper ballots by storing the vote electronically. In some DRE machines, the vote is stored on a physical device, like a flash drive, and then physically taken to a central vote tabulation machine. In other DRE machines, like those used in Hawaii, the vote is transmitted electronically through an Internet style network.
Babson and the other plaintiffs in the Hawaiian lawsuit were concerned that the electronic transmittal process could leave the votes vulnerable to tampering, either by hackers or the voting machine vendor, Hart InterCivic.. In his complaint, Mr. Babson expressed concern about the alleged secrecy surrounding the inner workings of the voting machines and the failure of the Hawaiian Election Office to fully investigate possible vulnerabilities in the transmittal process. According to Babson, Hart InterCivic has also refused to allow a full inspection of their voting hardware and software, citing intellectual property concerns.
So just how vulnerable are electronically transmitted ballots? The Vulnerability Assessment Team at Argonne Laboratories in Illinois, while testing Diebold (now known as Premier Election Solutions) voting machines, successfully interdicted electronically transmitted votes by inserting an inexpensive circuit board into the voting machines. This piece of “alien electronics” allowed the researchers to alter a voter’s ballot remotely, without the voter being aware of any alteration. Getting access to the inner workings of the machine is no issue, as some machines can be opened with a standard hotel minibar key. Researchers at Princeton have also reported similar security deficiencies in voting machines. Diebold is not the only manufacturer accused of taking shortcuts with security. Virtually all types of electronic voting machines, including those Hart InterCivic sells, are vulnerable to hacking. According to Argonne Laboratories, anybody with an 8th grade science education and 26 dollars to spare could take control of a voting machine: high-quality voter fraud at a budget price.
For their part, Diebold accused the Princeton University study of being “unrealistic and inaccurate.” David Byrd, President of Diebold Election Systems, said that the Princeton researchers ignored normal security procedures and that “numbered security tape, 18 enclosure screws and numbered security tags were destroyed or missing so that the researchers could get inside the unit. A virus was introduced to a machine that is never attached to a network.” Furthermore, despite the various reports pointing out the security issues, voting machines are still widely used. 32.6 of all ballots in the 2008 election were cast using electronic voting machines.
As for the plaintiffs in Babson, they enjoyed a brief moment of success. Judge Cardoza of Hawaii’s Second Circuit Court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, and issued an injunction forbidding the Office of Elections from purchasing electronic voting machines. According to the ruling, current Hawaiian law and election regulations did not permit the transmittal of ballots or vote counts via the Internet or telephone wires. The court implied that the Office of Elections had attempted to circumvent the normal election regulation procedure and ignored the need for a public hearing on the issue of electronic voting machines. Naturally, the Office of Elections responded by holding that public hearing and passed regulation 3-172-93 (see page 75 of PDF), which legalized the electronic transmission of ballots.
So technology marches on, for good or ill. In Hawaii, ballots will join twitter updates, emails, and lolcats on their journey through the Internet tubes.
Anthony Balady is a third-year law student at William & Mary.