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Digital Voting Challenges Lead to New Paper Ballot System in Maryland

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The Frederick News-Post, Frederick, Md, USA, published an article on Tuesday of this week about Maryland’s paper ballot voting system, to be rolled out to voters in the April primary, claiming it is as close to tamper-proof as any system yet seen and is a good example of what happens when old and new technology are combined.

Without question, it’s a big improvement from the touch-screen machines of past elections that left no paper trail, which sometimes raised questions about the integrity of the election process. Who can forget the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, when even Democrat Martin O’Malley and Republican Robert Ehrlich Jr. urged supporters to use absentee ballots, worried that the touch-screen machines weren’t reliable?

That’s about to change. Longtime Frederick County voters walking into the primary polls on April 26 will think they just went back to the future. That’s because residents will be handed a black pen and a piece of paper to fill in the multiple-choice bubbles on the ballot — similar to what they did in Frederick County elections before 2004.

This time, voters, after making their selections, will then walk over to a scanning unit and manually feed it into the machine, which will take a digital image of the paper ballot. This key step allows the computer to tabulate the votes while a paper backup is made in case of a recount.

Once that step is completed, the scanning unit drops the original ballot into a secured ballot box housed within the machine that are removed once the polls are closed.

Residents are taking advantage of early voting will experience a slightly different process. During early voting, residents will be provided a blank sheet of paper, but instead of using a pen they will insert it into a touch-screen system (officially, it’s called an ExpressVote ballot marking device) to enter their selections. Once the voter is finished, the machine will spit the completed paper ballot back out and the voter will walk over to another machine to have their ballot scanned, which is then dropped into a locked bin below the scanner.

The crucial point that can’t be emphasized enough is this: There is finally a paper trail.

That’s critical, because as long as there have been elections there have been questions raised about whether every vote is counted, and counted the right way.

For decades, paper ballot boxes were susceptible to accusations of being "stuffed." More recently, the pulling of switches and the flipping of levers on machines required those checking the numbers to write down the correct number of votes for each candidate. And that’s assuming there were no malfunctions with the mechanical devices.

The most recent touch-screen voting devices that have been used in Frederick County since 2004 and elsewhere in Maryland left no paper trail. What that meant was that in close races only absentee ballots, which still used paper, could be recounted with any degree of absolute certainty.

The irony is that the latest technology embraces the physical security of a printed-paper ballot with the speed and efficiency of digital tallying.

It doesn’t mean there might not be glitches during early voting or on primary day; when any new voting system is put into place, there is always the possibility of a hardware or software glitch.

But Frederick County has the good fortune of having Stuart Harvey as its director of the county’s Board of Elections. Harvey’s attention to detail and his no-nonsense approach to running elections will ensure that the election will run as smoothly here as anywhere in Maryland.

In the meantime, the Frederick election board is sponsoring at least seven more demonstrations throughout the county before the election for voters to view the new voting process and to raise any questions. See the bottom of this editorial for the complete schedule.

Because of safety and security concerns, and the lack of new technology in voting machines, both software and hardware, it took seven years for state officials to finally approve the $28 million contract to ramp up the new voting system — and then at least another year to roll it out.

But in the end it was worth the wait, because you can’t rerun an election, and a verifiable paper trail will leave no doubt.

This wasn't the only news about the need for paper balloting reform and the security of digital voting to be published on the web this week. Scientific American (New York City, N.Y.) is releasing an interview researching the dismal prospects for online voting in February. The transcript was released this week online. In it, the writer interviewed Avi Rubin, Professor of Computer Science at Johns Hopkins University, technical director of Johns Hopkins's Information Security Institute, and author of Brave New Ballot: The Battle to Safeguard Democracy in the Age of Electronic Voting. He's been deeply immersed in the research surrounding electronic voting for decades.
 
"Since I have more room on the Web than I do on the printed page, I would like to share more of our conversation here.
 
David Pogue: Are there any steps that would make you, a security researcher, comfortable with electronic voting?
 
Avi Rubin: In principle, I think that paper ballots are far superior to electronic voting machines. Even if the machines are high quality (and none of the current ones on the market have proven to be that), the inability to manually recount, to audit, and to prevent rigging and the potential for widespread, wholesale fraud are deal breakers for purely electronic voting. Paper ballots are not a panacea, but without them there is an opportunity for fraud that is much more widespread.
 
DP: What if the software in these machines is open source and can be inspected publicly?
 
AR: Just because software is open source does not mean that it will be subjected to many eyeballs. Voting machine software should most definitely be made publicly available, but we need to realize that it may still have security vulnerabilities. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to have an assurance the actual bits that are running inside of a voting machine on election day match the software that was publicly available.
 
DP: What if voters could look over a printed receipt before leaving the electronic machine?
 
AR: A voter-inspected paper record can overcome many of the weaknesses of electronic voting. There is no perfect voting system, but the best one that I know is where a touchscreen ballot marking machine is used for voters to make their selections. The machine then prints out a filled-out paper ballot. The voter takes this ballot, inspects it, challenges it and starts over if it is wrong (and reports it), and when a correct ballot is produced, submits it to the polls where it can be optically scanned.
 
Some random sample of ballot boxes is counted manually and compared to the scanned results, and if there are problems, more stations are manually compared. In case of a very close election or any hint of foul play, the ballots can be counted by hand or by a different brand of optical scanner.
 
We will never get this perfect. It's too hard a problem. But we can do a lot better than we have so far.
  
DP: Seems like the prospect of voting by smartphone would be even more vulnerable than the in-person methods, right?
 
AR: Yes, voting over the Internet or smartphones is a non-starter. You can't control the security of the platform. Remember that you don't even trust the manufacturer of the voting system. You don't want to put control of the outcome of a presidential election in the hands of Samsung or Apple, or millions of app developers."
 

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