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link to the published version: IEEE Computer, October, 2016

accesses since September 1, 2016

Douglas Jones on Today’s Voting Machines

Hal Berghel

We catch up with computer scientist and voting machine guru Doug Jones to get a deeper understanding of current challenges in electronic voting technology

Douglas Jones, a professor in the Computer Science Department at the University of Iowa, has been involved in voting technology research since 1995 and was a principal investigator for the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded ACCURATE project (A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable, and Transparent Elections; His recent book with co-author Barbara Simon, Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count? (CSLI Publications, 2012), is the seminal work in the area of current voting technology and is highly recommended to anyone who believes in fair elections.1 Much of Jones’s professional work is available on his website ( The “interview” that follows resulted from our email exchanges during July and August 2016.

Hal Berghel: You, Aviel Rubin, Bruce Schneier, and many other prominent computer scientists have been highly critical of DRE (direct-recording electronic) voting machine vendors for refusing to build DRE equipment around robust security models. Please provide us with a 2016 status update on the security of DRE voting machines.

Doug Jones: Most of the DRE voting machines being sold today are based on designs from the 1990s. That is to say, there has been little change in DRE voting technology in the past 15 years. Software upgrades over this interval have improved the graphical user interface design significantly, as well as fixing some security flaws, but this has largely been an incremental process. Finally, it is important to note that all of the major DRE voting system vendors have added voter-verifiable paper trail mechanisms.

In contrast, there is a new generation of optical mark scanners on the market. Where the scanners of the 1990s used either discrete component sensors or 100 pixel per inch monochrome contact image sensors, the new scanners use high resolution color image sensors originally developed for desktop scanners. Memory has become inexpensive enough that these scanners typically capture full images of each ballot instead of merely a summary of the votes cast.

The greatest liability faced by today's voting system vendors lies not in the vote capture technology, whether DRE or scanner based, but in the election management systems used to configure the vote capture system and accumulate precinct totals. These frequently include legacy support for the full range of voting systems sold by the corporate predecessors of the current vendors, since if some county somewhere is still using the system, continuing support is required, and it is more expensive to strip out code for systems no longer in use than to retain it. As a result the code in these election management systems tends to grow larger and more brittle with each passing year.

HB: : Voting machines have been widely discussed, but I've seen very little discussion of election management systems. What are the greater security vulnerabilities in the back end mgmt. system? Have computer scientists every analyzed any? If so, what did they find? Are there any reasons to assume that the back end is secure enough to prevent fraud from election insiders, network attacks, etc.

DJ: A typical election management system (EMS) contains a data base holding that holds all of the machine settings required to configure the voting system to meet local election laws, plus the mapping from precincts to election districts, the offices up for election in each district, and the candidates for those offices. Before the election, the EMS automatically generates configuration files from this data base for each DRE machine or ballot scanner, and after the election, the EMS consolidates the totals from each machine to produce jurisdiction wide results.

In most cases, configuration files are written to removable media such as compact flash cards for transfer to voting machinery, and official election results are returned on the same media. There is immense pressure from the media for rapid reporting of unofficial results, so most election management systems also include a modem bank so that voting machinery in the precinct can report by modem after the polls close. Similar pressures lead election offices to report election results on the web, so there is frequently a data path from the EMS to the jurisdiction's web server.

Because of its central role in both preparing for an election and aggregating the totals, a compromised EMS is very dangerous. It has the potential to misconfigure all of the voting equipment in the jurisdiction, and it can potentially alter the election results after the polls close.

Election officials frequently respond to allegations of software vulnerabilities by reassuring the public that voting equipment is not connected to the Internet. For the machinery in the precinct, this is generally true. However, almost all of the machinery in the precinct has modems, and the EMS typically has a modem bank. Results reporting to the Internet may be air-gapped, with hand-carried media, but in the past, many counties have had network connections from the EMS to the web server.

The defense against outside attack therefore depends on procedural defenses such as printing the official precinct totals and writing them to removable media before connecting the phone line to upload unofficial totals, and doing a cold start and restore from backup on the EMS after turning off the modem bank before processing the official results. Just as paper ballots from randomly selected precincts can be hand-counted to detect miscounts in ballot scanners, the paper records of precinct totals can be reconciled against the totals reported by the EMS. Numerous jurisdictions have done this routinely for decades, but it appears that many do not take these precautions.

In general, election management systems have not been subject to the scrutiny that DRE voting machines have faced. In part, this is because they are not as available. When jurisdictions replace vote tabulators and DRE machines, the old ones have sometimes been sold at government surplus auctions, where they become available to researchers. Election management systems generally run on commodity computers, and when these go to surplus, their disks are routinely scrubbed.

In addition, the major focus of researchers has been on those parts of the election system that are not software indepedent. Ronald Rivest and John Wack coined the term software independent to refer to voting systems where we do not need to rely on the correctness of the software to assure ourselves that the results are correct. Paperless DRE voting systems are purely software depedent, while paper-based systems are subject to hand recounts and audits that can, in principle, defend against malicious or erroneous software. With the procedural defenses outlined above, we can defend against a faulty or corrupt EMS. These procedures, have been used for decades in some jurisdictions and are required by law in some states, but their use is far from universal.

HB: If there were any application of computing that cries out for high-confidence code it would appear to be the voting machines that determine our nation’s future. This is precisely the sort of application where open source code excels. However, DRE equipment is proprietary: neither open source nor high-confidence. How did we get to the point where the public found this acceptable?

DJ: In the first place, DRE voting systems predate the open-source software development model. The first DRE voting machine sold commercially was the VideoVoter, first deployed in 1975 by a predecessor of Election Systems and Software. By 1990, the DRE marketplace was vibrant, with several vendors offering a range of machines, and it was only in the 1990s that research began to demonstrate that open-source software was, on the whole, more robust and secure than competing proprietary software.

There is a second problem with open-source software, and that is that it may not be the right model. In 2003, I helped found the Open Voting Consortium hoping that it would create a framework for open-source voting-system development. OVC still exists, but to this day, we do not have a consensus on how an open-source voting system development framework should function. The problem is, you can't just invite everyone to contribute code, you need tight controls over what goes into the final product. This applies to all security critical code. At this point, I am convinced that what we need is not so much open-source voting code, but a disclosed source model. That is, vendors should rely on copyright and patent law, not trade secrets to protect their intellectual property rights. The problem with this is that if any vendor relies on trade secrets, they can copy their competitor's code with impunity, so how do we manage the transition to a disclosed-source model?

Researchers interested in studying current voting systems face several legal barriers. It is not clear that it is legal to reverse engineer software or to experimentally test it for the purpose of assessing software security, even if this evaluation is critical to the public interest. Recent stories about the legal barriers to this have focused on the VW emissions control scandal, but it is clear that the same questions are relevant in the election domain.

HB: Independent Testing Authorities (ITAs) and the Voting System Testing Laboratories (VSTLs) that replaced them are approved by the government to certify that voting systems meet the federal Voting System Standards and the more recent Voluntary Voting System Guidelines (VVSG). However, they are paid by the manufacturers who seek the certification, and negative results are not reported to the public. This would appear to go beyond conflict-of-interest all the way to creating a moral hazard. What should be done to ensure legitimate certification [n.b., the Diebold AccuVote TS system that was easily hacked was certified by an ITA – ed.]

DJ: The ITA and VSTL model is closely parallel to the product testing and certification models used in a wide range of industries. Manufacturers of electrical products pay for UL testing. Manufacturers of medical apparatus pay for the testing needed to get FDA approval. Manufacturers of airplanes pay the cost of airworthiness certification. So long as products are developed and manufactured by for-profit private companies, it makes good sense that they should pay the price of bringing the products to market.

The problem with the current situation is that, in these other industries, there are strong feedback loops in the regulatory system: Defects in electrical products lead to insurance claims, and UL is the creation of the insurance industry. Medical professionals have strong incentives to report failures and side effects to the FDA, and every incident in the aviation industry is reported to the FAA. Regulators in these fields respond very rapidly to reports of problems.

In contrast, local election offices have strong incentives not to report problems. Public disclosure of failures in voting systems reduces voter confidence in the integrity of our democracy. Currently, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) requires voting system vendors to report all problems with voting systems certified to meet the EAC's VVSG, but the VVSG update process is extremely slow and the threshold of what constitutes a reportable problem appears to be rather high.

HB: Any serious student of human factors understands how important ballot design is to ballot effectiveness ( e.g., to avoid unintentional under-voting and accidental vote flipping, voter confusion, banner blindness, etc.), and yet there seems to be no attempt to set standards for ballot layout in the 2015 Voluntary Voting System Guidelines ( , cf, section 3, Usability, Accessibility, and Privacy Requirements). Am I missing something or is this a glaring failure of the EAC?

DJ: The voting system guidelines are written with an understanding that state laws largely dictate the details of the presentation of the ballot. State laws have frequently required horrible presentations, and the Federal government is largely powerless to intervene unless you can show discriminatory consequences under Federal civil rights or disability rights laws.

There is a glaring failure here, but the root of the problem is congressional. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 that established the EAC contains this text: “The error rate of the voting system in counting ballots (determined by taking into account only those errors which are attributable to the voting system and not attributable to an act of the voter) shall comply with ...” [[Section 301 (a) (5)]] That is to say, human factors are explicitly excluded from any discussion of the accuracy requirements.

Section 3 of the 2005 Voluntary Voting System Guidelines tries hard to address usability within the scope permitted by HAVA and the range of state requirements, but the emphasis is on accessibility. It is likely that more can be done under the current legal framework, but it will probably take a change to this framework to properly address the issue.

HB: The Florida presidential election of 2000 illustrated the dangers in having political partisans serve as chief election officials. What are your thoughts on how we might de-politicize the office of chief election official in the U.S. ?

DJ: I distrust suggestions that you can simply require that election administration be depoliticized. The problem is how to do this. In a democracy, it verges on irresponsible for a person not to have political opinions. I would much rather know the politics of the people running our elections than have them hide their politics. So, the problem is not how to depoliticize elections, it is how to manage the fact that people are inherently political.

In states with good civil-service systems, it is possible to erect a fairly solid firewall between the elected and partisan appointees and the actual administration of elections. The other alternative is to rely on mutual distrust, requiring that representatives of both parties be involved in all critical decisions. This works reasonably well in a balanced 2-party democracy, but it becomes unwieldy as the number of parties grows, and because it relies on mutual distrust, it breaks down badly where there are partisan coalitions or when one party is significantly more powerful than the others.

HB: Let's discuss the two models of election secrecy for a moment. The British model holds that the ability to recover the individual voter's preference is a state secret. What you call the “absolute secrecy model” that is the default in the U.S. holds that no information may be retained that would allow any observer to determine a particular voter's preferences. Michael Shamos faults VVPAT systems as egregious violations of the voters' right to secret ballot. Does Shamos' observation speak in favor of eliminating VVPAT systems altogether, or to moving to the British model of election secrecy? Is there a middle ground?

DJ: The generation of VVPAT systems that were introduced after Election 2000 use continuous rolls of thermal-printer paper to record a paper trail. Mike Shamos is correct that these prevent absolute ballot secrecy. There is also ample evidence that the number of voters who read the VVPAT on these machines is small enough that they are not very good at achieving their stated purpose.

There are two answers to the middle ground question: First, a set of scissors. Ideally, the VVPAT could be snipped after each voter's record is printed inside the voting machine. The printers used in many modern receipt printers can do this. Alternatively, before any person is allowed to look closely at the VVPAT contents during an audit, it could be snipped into segments by hand.

Second, we can create cryptographic links between voter and ballot. A number of proposals for end to end (E2E) cryptographically verifiable elections do this with multiple key custodians. The key custodians must cooperate to decrypt the ballots, but voter privacy is assured so long as just one key custodian does not join in a conspiracy to violate that privacy. At this point, there are no E2E systems that would meet the requirements for a public general election using DRE or Internet voting, but several are in widespread use in less critical contexts.

HB: You mentioned in your book that Iowa statute requires that at least one of the Board of Examiners for Voting Machines and Electronic Voting Systems “…shall have been trained in computer programming and operations.” [Doug Jones once held that position – ed.] This requirement seems beyond eminently sensible. How might other state legislatures be incentivized to create similar laws?

DJ: Some of them already do, but this is not necessarily a successful requirement. In Iowa, when they asked for volunteers to serve on the Board of Examiners from the tech sector, I was the only volunteer. When I told Mike Shamos this story, he said that was exactly how he got on the Pennsylvania board – in his case, there were three openings and exactly three volunteers.

When I volunteered to serve as an examiner for Iowa's voting machines, I significantly overestimated the technical competence of the vendors, and I seriously mis-estimated where the problems would be. I expected interesting cryptography and interesting embedded systems. I did not expect to see system failures that were dominated by human factors amateurish software development methodologies.

In most states, voting system examination is essentially a volunteer job with a token reimbursement that may have been significant a century ago. I took me years to reach the point that I felt confident in my criticism of the process and the marketplace. Not many people who have the technical expertise can make this commitment.

Several states hire outside consultants to evaluate voting systems. This model would make sense if there was a pool of outside consultants who were both well informed about the current state of voting systems and free of entanglements with the voting system industry. Unfortunately, such a pool is hard to identify.

HB: On a personal note, several computer scientists and election officials have experienced first-hand the wrath of manufacturers of DRE equipment, ITA executives, and the leadership of influential special interest constituencies for speaking out about insecure voting systems. In fact attempts to censor or silence both you and Aviel Rubin were directed to the presidents of your respective universities, and at least one election official was forced to resign for allowing Diebold equipment to be inspected by computer security experts. Of course truth is always disadvantaged when it confronts power, but elections are so important that it would seem that a special case should be made to protect experts, official and whistleblowers. What are your thoughts?

DJ: In both my case and Avi Rubin's case, our institutions did an excellent job of responding to the attacks. Working in academia has its advantages.

It is much harder to protect voting system administrators who raise unwelcome questions about the systems they are using. Elected officials at all levels are reluctant to face any questions about the election system that put them in office. When there are suggestions that the voting system is flawed, common defenses include shifting the focus. For example, politicians love to talk about voter fraud, while the vast majority of historical election fraud seems to have been instigated by the struggle of ruling parties to preserve their status in the face of voter discontent.

As Dan Wallach at Rice University pointed out that those who lose elections are the ones who ask the hard questions, while the winners generally prefer that their victory go unquestioned. Short of broad-based public outcry and blatant misconduct, election officials willing to expose voting systems to close scrutiny by outside investigators will invariably place their jobs on the line.

HB: Your book quotes Ron Rivest “Coming up with “best practices for Internet Voting” is like coming up with “best practices for drunk driving.” You really don't want to go there.” Let's close with your current thoughts about Internet voting.

DJ: Internet voting faces two huge problems, Internet security, and human factors.

Questions of Internet security have received more attention in recent years. There has been an almost constant drumbeat of reports about government databases that have fallen to malicious hacking, and there is no reason to believe that voter databases, election configuration databases or election result databases are immune to this threat.

Proposals for end-to-end cryptographic voter-verifiable elections are interesting in this context. If voters could compute elliptical polynomials in their heads, these cryptosystems might actually solve the security problems, but real people can't do this. As a result, the cryptography must be done on the voter's computer, and done by software that, ultimately, the voter cannot be sure of. So long as voters personal computers are vulnerable to malware, there is no guarantee that the vote reported to the election management system is the same as what the voter intended.

And then, there is the problem of human factors. All internet voting systems are, at heart, direct-recording electronic voting systems where the Internet replaces the memory cartridge used to communicate with the election management system. I have run experiments on DRE interfaces at the University of Iowa, and David Byrne has run even more comprehensive experiments at Rice University that show significant error rates when people vote on DRE voting systems. What becomes rapidly obvious is that we are very good at designing user interfaces for routine use. People use cellphones daily and ATMs weekly, but most voters only vote once every few years. All of our assumptions about how people learn user interfaces and how people develop expertise fly out the window in this context. Voting systems must be accessible to the most technologically unsophisticated without any training. This sets an extremely high bar, and we are not there yet.

For those interested in further information about today's digital election systems, the definitive book on the subject is Doug's book with Barbara Simon: Broken Ballots: Will your Vote Count? – available from Amazon and major booksellers.