This op-ed appeared at Northjersey.com on April 3, 2011.
It has been nothing short of astonishing that, within a few weeks, the brave people of Tunisia and Egypt toppled corrupt dictators who ruled for decades. One of the protesters’ key demands was for democratic elections — the right to choose a government that is responsive to the people’s needs. That is also what protesters in Bahrain, Yemen, Iran, Jordan and Libya are demanding as they call for the dissolution of their autocratic and oppressive governments. As the protesters know all too well, voting does not mean that one’s vote will be counted. In Egypt’s 2005 elections, Hosni Mubarak was reelected with 88.6 percent of the vote. In 2009, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was reelected with an 89.6 percent landslide victory. In both cases allegations of fraud and corruption surrounded the elections.
What nobody is talking about is how votes will be cast in emerging democracies. For elections to be legitimate in such countries, it is critical to use voting technology that counts votes accurately. In the 21st century, chances are high that computers will be used in some form in the coming elections in Egypt and Tunisia. But voting computers, like heads of state, must be held accountable to the people they serve. It is a tenet of computer science that computers can be programmed to do anything, including play “Jeopardy!” and steal votes.
Studies have shown that computerized voting machines can be made to cheat by persons with the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in computer science. Princeton Professor Ed Felten was able to break into a Diebold voting computer using a standard-issue mini-bar key. He was then able to override the legitimate program with a vote-stealing program, and introduce a virus that could spread to all voting machines and make them cheat, too. These fraudulent programs could not be detected.
Additionally, Princeton Professor Andrew Appel was able to break into the Sequoia Advantage voting computer in under 10 seconds using a paper clip. In under seven minutes, he was able to replace the legitimate vote-counting chip with an identical chip that contained a vote-stealing program. The voting computer could not detect the fake program, and the voting machine was programmed to steal votes for perpetuity.
The Princeton hacks are not unique. Studies commissioned by the secretaries of state of California, Ohio, Maryland and Connecticut outline in great detail the many vulnerabilities of various computerized voting systems.
Because voting computers are so vulnerable to tampering, they must be checked through an independent auditing system, not controlled by the computer, to make sure that they are counting votes properly.
The only way that this can be done is through the use of a voter-verified paper ballot, which can take a number of forms: an actual paper ballot that the voter fills out before it is scanned and counted by a voting computer, or a lottery-ticket-size mini-ballot that the computer generates. If that mini paper ballot accurately reflects the voter’s choice, the voter casts his vote. In both cases, the paper ballots would count as the official ballots in the event of a challenge to the election results, or a voting machine malfunction.
But voter verified paper ballots, in and of themselves, cannot detect fraud. To fully ensure that the voting computers are not cheating, it is necessary to audit a certain percentage of voting machines in each election precinct by manually counting the paper ballots and comparing the hand-counted results with the computer-generated results. This system worked marvelously in Minnesota, when millions of voter verified paper ballots had to be hand-counted to determine the winner of the 2008 Senate race. Studies showed that the tally was 99.99 percent accurate.
Finally, to ensure that votes are counted accurately, it is imperative that totals be counted and announced at the precinct level. This protects against tampering with voting machines and paper ballots while they are being transported to centralized tabulation locations.
The protesters in Tunisia and Egypt have accomplished so much. Their hopes for legitimate elections and true democracies, however, can only be realized if they demand and use voting systems where election results can be checked, and double checked.
Penny M. Venetis, a Tenafly native, is a professor at Rutgers School of Law. She specializes in constitutional law, election law and human rights law.