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Q&A: E-voting activist more optimistic about voting systems

Most states have switched to paper records, Rubin notes

By Todd R. Weiss
July 3, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - For more than a decade, Aviel "Avi" Rubin, a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and an e-voting activist, has been a vocal critic of e-voting systems across the nation. In 2006, Rubin wrote the book, Brave New Ballot: The Battle to Safeguard Democracy in the Age of Electronic Voting, which heavily criticized e-voting machines for security and reliability shortcomings. Rubin talked with Computerworld about the recent presidential primary election cycle and his thoughts on e-voting going into the November elections. The following is an edited version of that interview.

Now that we've finished our presidential primaries, how do you think e-voting went this election season? E-voting is really dangerous and unpopular with security people, not because of how the election is likely to go in what's perceived, but with the problems that might happen that are not perceived.


Name: Avi Rubin
Title: E-voting activist, computer science professor
Organization: Johns Hopkins University
Hobbies: Plays soccer in an over-40 league, tennis and golf. An avid photographer, he has a portrait studio in his basement.
Greatest passion: Sailing; just bought his first boat, a 40-foot sloop

Last book read: Man's Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl
If I had a day to do anything I wanted, I would: Go sailing in the Caribbean.

Favorite food: Ethnic cuisine, including Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Italian
Something people may not know about him: He's president of Independent Security Evaluators LLC in Baltimore, which helps corporations fix internal security problems. He began the 17-employee business in 2005 and has a policy of not working with e-voting businesses.
For example, if the concern is that the electronic voting machines are going to record votes incorrectly, in a way that might not be noticeable, then you can run an election and say that it appears to have gone fine, but we don't really know. And so, given that I have the concern that we have voting machines that we can't audit and we can't have confidence that they got the answer right, then the answer is, "Well we think it went OK, but we don't really know."

The kinds of problems that we worry about are exactly the kind that don't necessarily have a noticeable manifestation. I do think one of the risks of fully electronic voting is that a small mistake can be magnified in scale all over the place because the touch-screen e-voting machines are all the same, they're all electronic, they all require power, and they all use computer code and a particular set of circumstances that could cause something bad to happen everywhere. I don't usually think it's likely to happen, and in this case, it doesn't appear to have happened. But the concerns of security and auditability are not necessarily things that would leave any incriminating evidence of a potential problem.

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