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Book review: Broken Ballots

July 6, 2012 -- 10:27 GMT (03:27 PDT)
By Wendy M Grossman for ZDNet UK Book Reviews

Few people — the security expert Rebecca Mercuri being the notable exception — thought much about the mechanics of voting before the Bush-versus-Gore presidential election in 2000. A few weeks of watching diligent poll workers holding up ballots to look for hanging chads changed all that. The timing — coincidental with both the rise of the internet and the dot-com bust — suddenly put voting technology on everyone's agenda.

The UK, like a number of European countries, had a brief flirtation with electronic voting. ... In the US, Bush v. Gore led to the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which mandated the updating of voting equipment and set off substantial controversy.

A number of earlier books have examined computer-based voting and concluded that it's a supremely bad idea. Primarily, these have focused on explaining the basic security issues and the contemporary context for the popular market. In Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count?, Douglas W. Jones, a computer scientist at the University of Iowa, and Barbara Simons, a retired IBM research scientist and former president of the Association for Computing Machinery, have written the book that's really needed: a comprehensive historical and technical account of just why it's dangerous to place the control of our democracy in the hands of a few technology vendors. It doesn't make for exactly light reading, and it's definitely a US-centric account, but as a worked example of the interactions among technology, policy and security it can't be beaten.

Most of the details of how voting is managed now are in response to some previous fraud. The US's love for anonymous voting, for example ... is to ensure that votes can't be bought or bullied. ...

This book recounts all that, and goes into the detail of the security issues inherent in this technology. We may not need all this information right now, but bad policies have a way of resurfacing. As Jones and Simons remind us at the beginning of this book, one of the first lessons learned about voting was that the only way to ensure fair and accurate elections is to ensure the people running them cannot commit fraud. Boss Tweed, the famed manipulator of New York municipal elections summed it up in 1871: "As long as I count the votes, what are you going to do about it?"