Q&A: Felten on e-voting and what can go wrong

Princeton prof says security, reliability are the key concerns with e-voting machines

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What's your concept of an ideal, "crack-proof" voting system? There's a lot of things that could be done better than today's systems to protect systems against tampering. Ultimately, the protections have to be out of the voting machine itself, and the whole voting process has to be designed so that human processes of oversight and observation can help to secure the system. You won't be able to necessarily prevent the machine from being tampered with, but you can hope to notice the tampering and hope to be able to figure out what the voters really wanted to do regardless of tampering.

What's the biggest concern with e-voting? Is it the sort of undetectable hacking you and your students demonstrated, voter error like touching the wrong button, flat-out attempts by one side or the other to steal elections? What's the most likely problem to crop up? The most likely problem due to e-voting is likely just to be an engineering error or a bug or a misconfiguration of something that leads to votes either being lost or being put in the wrong column by mistake. So not malice, but just the kind of garden-variety computer problems that we all are used to cropping up on the voting machines.

There are some accounts of e-voting problems making the rounds of the blogs, with some of the more hysterical accounts talking about potential stealing of the election. Does that sort of paranoia diminish legitimate concerns about the everyday problems you're talking about? I think that they may if people go too far in claiming that there have been problems. But we don't want to lose sight of the fact that tampering with an election is a technical possibility today. It's something that is feasible, so we can't just rule it out, out of hand. We need to, while remembering that unintentional error is far more likely, that this is a problem we need to fix, and that it's not really acceptable I think, going forward, to have a whole chain of elections that are vulnerable to tampering.

So how worried should people really be, ultimately, about all this? I think it's important for people to keep their eyes open and recognize that things may go wrong, but I think the most important thing for the typical citizen is to work toward having a better system next time. As we come up on the current election, it's too late to change much of anything. But there are a lot of elections down the road that are equally as important to get right, and this is the time to start working to get your public official to adopt a better system.

Keeping in mind that the presidential election in 2000 actually was ultimately won by about 500 votes in Florida, how likely do you think it is that a voting machine malfunction could throw the election? As you said, the first prerequisite for this has to be an election that's really close to start with, close enough that a relatively small error might potentially flip it. But that kind is the nightmare scenario -- that you have an election that's extremely close and decided by a relatively small margin in one or two states, and that there are e-voting irregularities in those places so that there is genuine doubt about what the voters actually meant to do.

So you'd need a perfect storm of things coming together for a machine malfunction to actually throw an election. For a machine malfunction to throw a presidential election, you would have to have circumstances like this. But of course, there are a lot of elections going on at the state and local level as well.

We've seen instances in the past where elections were ruined by electronic voting errors or almost ruined, and only a paper trail was able to determine who actually won the election. So it wouldn't be too surprising to see some problem like that somewhere in this election. Although the chances of it happening in the presidential election seem relatively small, still.

There have been reports that voters in Charleston saw votes flip from the Democratic to the Republican side -- they pressed on the button for Democrats and saw the X light up on the Republican side. What do you make of that? One possibility is the calibration of the touch-screen voting machine. Basically, a touch-screen device needs to be set up so that it accurately detects what position on the screen is being touched. If you have a cell phone that has a touch screen on it, often there is this process you go through at the beginning where it shows cross hairs and you have to touch those so that it can learn which electrical signals correspond to which positions on the screen. And if you don't get that right, then it will feel a touch in a different place than where the touch actually happened. That's one explanation for these vote flips that are recorded, but of course there could be other things causing it too -- you can't really tell without more of an examination.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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