Response to: Internet Voting is no 'Magic Ballot'

Posted on Wed, 21 Mar 2001 15:31:22 CST by
Douglas W. Jones
from the University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, in

comp.risks Volume 21: Issue 30

Indexed on the web at

First, I wish people would stop talking about Internet voting as if it was a completely different animal. It isn't. Traditional absentee voting and vote by mail are also done from the home, raising problems of difficult voter authentication and insecure ballot transmission. Direct recording voting machines and precinct-count mark-sense and punched-card ballot systems also use computers and many now offer transmission of totals over public telecommunications systems (frequently phone and radio). We should address these risks across the board! The way things are going, I'm afraid we'll end up quite properly stamping out the threat of immediate Internet voting while leaving the significant flaws of these other voting systems largely un-addressed!

We should treat Internet voting as direct recording absentee voting using electronic communication of ballots and vote totals, and we should address the threats it raises by fixing the laws regarding absentee voting, direct recording voting systems and use of electronic communication in elections! Yes, the Internet does introduce some new problems, but these other problems are far, far broader!

Second, I have been involved with certification testing of DRE machines, and I've found that it is extremely difficult! With mark-sense and punched card systems, you prepare a test deck or a test ballot stack, and then run those ballots through the system, checking to see that the totals reflect your test. You can hand-count your test deck and arrange all the votes to come up in easy to recognize patterns in the final total.

In contract, with DRE systems, you have to stand there in front of the machine doing a repetitive and mind-numbing exercise, entering ballot after ballot into the machine. After a few ballots, your mind begins to wander. After a few tens of ballots, your fingers are sore from pushing buttons or tapping the screen, and by the end of your test, you've made so many mistakes that the numbers are meaningless.

A voter casts only one ballot, and for the voter, the voting experience is a peak moment. I've concluded that DRE machines are extremely difficult to test because of this! Hundreds of volunteers (or paid experimental subjects) might be able to run a good test, but even then, they'd be required to vote from a sheet of paper instructing them what candidates to select in order to follow the test plan. Alternatively, the hundreds of voters could be closely observed (perhaps by discretely hidden video cameras), in order to observe how they vote and then compare this to the election result.

The FEC's "voluntary" standards suggest a button-pushing robot to perform such tests, but for accurate testing, this would need a functioning vision system so it reacts to the feedback provided by the machine.

In sum, I've concluded that the accuracy of DRE machines is extremely hard to assess -- so much so that I don't see any reason to trust the assessments that have been made, whether they're positive or negative!