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Sci Tech    H2'ed 7/1/11

Election Integrity Advocates Take On Internet Voting In California

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My guest today is California election activist Jim Soper. Welcome to OpEdNews! You recently set up a webpage because of an initiative in your home state to institute email voting for overseas voters. Why are you so disturbed by this move? 

For several reasons. First is that the consensus among computer security experts is that paperless voting is dangerous, because there is no independent way to check the results reported by the machines. Voting across the Internet is worse, because it opens up the voting system to several more types of attack, from anywhere in the world, all of them dangerous. Voting by email attachment is even worse, because no attempt is made to encrypt the ballot as it travels from router to router across the globe on its way to its destination. A router is a computer that relays messages across a network. Being a computer, it is quite capable of "photoshopping" or simply blocking any ballot that passes through. A ballot sent from Afghanistan could pass through routers in China, Iran, Russia, or numerous other undemocratic countries that would have an interest in "improving" ballots headed for the California. This is only one of several severe vulnerabilities in Internet voting.

Secondly, world-class security experts have repeatedly and emphatically stated that Internet voting is dangerous. Nevertheless, Washington DC insisted on running a pilot Internet voting project last fall. To their credit, the DC officials did the prudent thing and opened a trial system up to red team (hack) testing. It took University of Michigan "wolverines" less than 36 hours to dig into the system and take complete control of everything - ballots, encryption codes, passwords, voter records, emails, the tabulator - everything. This was a system that the officials were going to put into real use in a few weeks. What the pilot project did was put a huge exclamation point on the message that the best Internet voting system is none at all.

Finally, while we knew that the people pushing Internet voting would not stop, in spite of the clear evidence laid before them, we thought that California would be immune from this type of lunacy. We had well established a practice of strongly encouraging voters to fill out real paper ballots, with the use of a paper trail attached to a touchscreen machine being kept to a minimum for those who really needed to use the computer. Secretary of State Bowen has established a nation-wide reputation as being very tech-savvy, and her regulations for voting systems are probably the most comprehensive in the country. She opposes email voting, and that should be enough to stop any right thinking individual from even introducing an email-voting bill in California. Well, someone did, and it sailed through the Senate, 23 to 11, with little opposition, except from Secretary Bowen. This came as a complete surprise, and we realized that we had to oppose SB 908 quickly and firmly. This led to the creation of www.CountedAsCast.org/sb908/ .

We've been working on educating the public on this subject for years, without much success. Yet despite everything, there is this headlong rush to remove the public's ability to observe the vote process entirely.  Who gains from such a lack of transparency?

Three groups of people -

1) Election officials, whose job it is to run smooth elections, with no problems that make the press. This is not their fault. It's how they are judged by their superiors. I might add, that it is a very difficult, complex job; something the equivalent of running a small airline, complete with planes, tickets, baggage, passenger dietary restrictions, security issues, weather problems, etc. Oh, and the airport staff, and cabin attendants are all poorly paid, poorly trained temps - and you only do it once or twice a year - for real, no practice runs, on schedule. So things will go wrong, and any openness that exposes things going wrong makes their job harder. Anything that can automate processes, such as computers, makes it easier. So naturally, officials like computers, and not having the complexity of handling thousands of pieces of paper. The problem is that how officials are judged, "smooth" elections, is not what the public needs, elections that they can prove to be fair and accurate. The officials need to be more open. And the press and the public, while being watchful, should not overblow minor glitches into accusations of major fraud.

2) Voting systems vendors. They make money from the sales of systems. This is obvious. Again, they don't like it when the public learns about the problems, and the clearly unprofessional programming inside their machines. Their job is made more difficult by having to develop machines for 50 different states, with many different rules and certification procedures. The federal testing process is very expensive and takes many months. There is a serious problem in that the vendors cannot legally fix a single bug without going through the entire testing and certification process. So they are not rushing to make systems better, especially when the federal HAVA money has dried up. This needs to change. Allowing for independent system modules, using open source, and having some kind of faster update-verification system observable by the public would be a big help. Having truly open and honest vendors would also be a big help. Stonewalling does not.

3) The people who gain the most from lack of transparency are those that can control the systems that record and count the votes. Election officials have insider access to the systems. The vendors program and install them. Then there is the one company that makes the operating system that runs on all the machines, Microsoft; and numerous companies that write the other software allowed on the machines; plus the Chinese companies actually manufacturing the computers and the chips; and finally, hackers. If you add the Internet into the mix, the hackers can attack from anywhere in the world. Any of these individuals or companies has the possibility of rigging elections, and with that, decisions about how trillions of dollars are spent, and issues of war, peace, and justice. Rigging elections existed in America since long before the arrival of computers. This is not new. What is changing is the capability of fewer people to rig ever more elections from within a centralized, harder to trace system. Who gains the most? I don't know exactly. But I would suggest using that old maxim, follow the money.

I'd like to go back to why it's still so hard to get the public hot and bothered about the way these unobservable, unconfirmable elections are run. HBO did a documentary, Hacking Democracy, which premiered on Election Day 2006 and showed a voting machine hack on camera. And nothing happened. More studies come out; screw-ups are reported across the country, in every single election cycle. More silence. How can the public still be oblivious to the dangers our elections face? Not to mention the cost of decisions made by perhaps unelected officials. 

Actually things have changed. It's just glacial. The fall of '06 was a turning point. Princeton computer scientists were demonstrating live vote rigging on national news shows, including Fox. There was a major system meltdown in Maryland in September, right next to Washington, which is important. A Diebold voting machine was on the cover of Newsweek in October. Hacking Democracy came out in November (videos are available here: http://www.countedascast.com/resources/videos.php ). And on Election Day, Debra Bowen was elected Secretary of State in California. Seven months later, she came out with her Top To Bottom Review conducted by the University of California that proved how vulnerable voting systems are. The difference is that election integrity advocates are no longer treated as nut cases. We now get listened to. Ten years ago, "they" would have been able to ram Internet voting through. Now they are still pushing it, but having a much more difficult time.

The election integrity movement is very disorganized, and largely unfunded. Similar to planetary baking, the issue can become complex and technical, offering the opposition the opportunity to obfuscate and confuse. We need to get better at developing a clear, concise, compelling message, and repeating it. Visuals are an important part of a message, and we don't use them nearly enough. Also, an Election Integrity group was recently formed on Facebook. It is now 500+ strong, we are still learning how to campaign effectively.

We will have to repeat, repeat and repeat a clear, concise, compelling message. And since the media, and therefore the public, generally only reacts to crises, we will make progress in increments until there is another presidential election meltdown. But this time, we will have laid the groundwork, and be ready.

You have a deadline looming, Jim, regarding the Internet voting legislation which is moving steadily and stealthily through the California legislature. What are you hoping will happen now? What can people do? What would you like to see them do? And is concern over this topic restricted to California residents?

First, Internet voting concerns the entire country, and what happens in California does not stay in California. As an example, the republican primary looks like it will be hotly contested, and close. Everybody would like to know that the vote for delegates here was fair and accurate. If California introduces email voting, we will not have that assurance. There are at the very least, 10,000 overseas voters registered in one county alone, Los Angeles. That's more than enough to make it worthwhile for someone to "photoshop" the ballots before or when they arrive at the single county email server. San Diego, with its large military vote, is another fat target. Nothing may happen during the primaries. We would probably not know, because there is no way of double-checking the ballots. But email voting is an effort to get a toe in the door. They will try to spread it to other states, state by state. Then they will ask, if Pete can email his ballots in from Paris, why can't Linda in LA? And a complex technical issue will be hard to explain in the face of unrelenting propaganda. 
Their ultimate goal is paperless voting from your cell phone. The code phrase for this is "meeting the expectations of young voters." I've heard this phrase coming out of official meetings in Los Angeles, and in Washington. I write mobile apps. Reliable voting from a cell phone, while a nice idea, is decades away at best. So yes, this push for paperless Internet voting is a threat to everybody who cares about democracy.

What can you do? First, go to http://countedascast.org/sb908/ , and follow the instructions about making your voice heard with the members of the Assembly Elections Committee 
( http://www.assembly.ca.gov/acs/newcomframeset.asp?committee=7 ). Even if your are from out of state, this affects you, so, politely, with a clear, concise and compelling message, stand up and be counted. If you live near Sacramento, the hearing will be July 5th, 1:30, at the State Capitol. You will probably not have the right to speak, but your presence will be visible.

For the longer term, get organized. Form a local group, even if it's small. Meetup.com helps finds others in your town that might be interested. Then establish working relationships with election officials, politicians, and other groups across your state. Get to know them. This latter point has been crucial to what we are doing in California. Finally, plug into national networks, such as the Election Integrity group at   http://groups.google.com/group/ElectionIntegrity and on Facebook. Other groups are listed here: http://www.countedascast.com/resources/organizations.php .

I believe that we will block or at least alter the email voting bill in the California Assembly Elections Committee. The same bill that sailed through the Senate 23 to 11. A major difference will be that a small but dedicated network of advocates is organizing opposition to the bill. We know now that calls and emails are pouring into assemblymembers' offices, all opposed. Six years ago, it was difficult just to be heard. Now we are better organized, and definitely influencing legislation. At some point, we will be helping to write it. We only fail if we quit. We are not quitting. Democracy is too important.

Thanks so much for talking with me, Jim. Good luck with this.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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