By Robert Lemos
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
September 30, 2004 4:00 AM PT
On paper, Venezuela's electronic voting system seemed a model of democracy: The country's new ballot machines included paper receipts of authentication, a safety measure that critics say is sorely needed in U.S. e-voting systems to maintain the public's trust.
Then a slew of missteps by Venezuelan election authorities, including their initial rejection of international inspection, undercut whatever confidence they had acquired from the public. Nevertheless, the Latin American nation has accomplished something that has long eluded the United States: a national system of electronic voting.
"The Carter Center concludes that the automated machines worked well and the voting results do reflect the will of the people," former U.S. President Jimmy Carter wrote after his organization observed Venezuelan voting and audited a results sample from the Aug. 15 referendum to recall President Hugo Rafael Chavez.
For all its vaunted leadership in technology and all things democratic, the United States finds itself in the unusual position of looking to developing nations for direction in the field of electronic voting. Mistrust of technology and the closed systems that have been created to tally votes have scuttled touch-screen and other electronic voting systems.
Under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, the federal government hoped that a majority of precincts would begin to use e-voting systems, but only about 31 percent of the nation's voters will likely cast a ballot on an electronic system this fall.
While foreign voting systems are certainly far from perfect, both supporters and detractors of e-voting agree that the United States can learn some important lessons from parts of the world that have not been historically associated with sophisticated voting technologies.
"Before we start experimenting with new technology and real elections, we can use what other countries are doing as an experiment," said Aviel Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University.
India, whose per-capita income is a 70th that of the United States, has moved to an electronic system that ties a million terminals together to enable the entire country's citizens to vote digitally. In India's most recent elections, e-voting machines counted every ballot. Nearly 390 million people voted out of a possible 670 million eligible to vote, according to data from the Election Commission of India.
Venezuela has also converted its ballot boxes to digital devices. In the recent attempt to recall President Chavez, nearly 70 percent of the voters, or about 10 million people, turned out to cast their votes on touch-screen terminals, according to the Consejo Nacional Electoral, Venezuela's electoral council. The referendum resulted in 59 percent of voters denying the recall.
Despite obvious achievements, the speed of e-voting advancement in other countries has come at a price.
Fearing fraud in Venezuela
In Venezuela, for example, the government gave the opposition fodder for claims of tampering by initially denying a spot check of voting machines after the polls closed. Election authorities eventually allowed an audit of 1 percent of the machines, allegedly selected randomly, but the number of machines checked was limited; the high voter turnout caused polls to close late. A second audit, requested by international observers, occurred three days later, but the government selected the method of review.
"The random sample wasn't chosen by the Carter Center but by the government," said Roberto Rigobon, an economics professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management.
Without a reliable audit, the groups that sponsored the referendum to remove President Chavez pointed to two apparent statistical anomalies as proof that the machines had been tampered with. About 400 precincts, or mesas, had two or more machines that registered the same number of "yes" votes, and 380 had two or more machines with the same number of "no" ballots. Other precincts had fewer "yes" votes than the number of signatures on their local recall petitions.
A statistical analysis of the first anomaly by three computer science professors--Johns Hopkins' Rubin and Adam Stubblefield, and Princeton University's Edward Felten--calculated that the pattern of identical votes could happen but noted that the process by which the votes were counted and recounted was not designed well. "Venezuela is an example of how not to do voter-verified paper trails," Rubin said.
Two Venezuelan economists believe that they have shown that it is unlikely that the elections were fraud-free. An analysis of the mismatch between the demographics of people that signed the recall petition and the actual votes concluded that there is a 97.5 percent chance that someone tampered with the recall vote, said MIT's Rigobon, who penned the second analysis along with fellow Venezuelan citizen Ricardo Hausmann, an economics professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
"The most important lesson from Venezuela is that doing fraud in electronic voting is extremely easy and very hard to track," Rigobon said.
The Carter Center has responded to the Rigobon-Hausmann study with its own analysis, showing that the election continues to appear fair.
Inspiring trust in India
Indian officials say the issue of voter trust and confidence is of paramount importance to their country as well, given its history of protests and violence on election days. Tampering is so common that the country even has a name for the seizure of polling stations from poll workers and police: "booth capture."
The country's electronic ballot box was designed with the prevalent method of voting fraud in mind. To prevent the use of voting machines to cast false votes after a party takes control of the polling place, the official in charge can throw a switch to shut down the voting machine, cutting it off from accepting any more votes.
"Voting is a cherished tradition there," said Michael Shamos, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. "Mobs regularly break out on election day, so you have to make the systems trusted."
It is impossible to gauge with any accuracy the possibility of fraud in the Indian national elections in May and June, but very little violence was reported in a vote that changed the guard to a government led by the Indian National Congress from a coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Moreover, the country faces other challenges, such as developing voting machines that are easy enough for the country's one-third illiterate populace to use, as well as reliable and cheap to produce. India opted for push-button electronic counters rather than on high-tech computers for the country's far-flung 670 million registered voters in the last election.
While Venezuela checks voters' identities by scanning fingerprints and comparing them to a central database, India prevents multiple voting merely by marking each voter's fingertip with indelible ink. And to aid the illiterate, the ballot was basically a list of parties adjacent to their symbols.
Open source and Australia
Australia offers yet another type of technology in its version of electronic voting. While India and Venezuela have largely relied on black boxes, Australia believes that the best way to get citizens to trust e-voting machines is to keep no secrets.
The country's sole pilot program for electronic voting covers fewer than 10 polling places in the Australian Capital Territory, which consists primarily of capital city Canberra. The government requested that the voting systems be built with open-source software, allowing anyone to look at and modify the code.
"I wouldn't go so far as to say that open-source e-voting is key to the democratic process, but I do believe that one of the key features of a democratic electoral system is transparency--essentially being able to externally verify that what goes in is what comes out," said Phillip Green, electoral commissioner for the Australian Capital Territory. "Open-source e-voting software is one way of achieving transparency, but not the only way."
The company that developed Australia's pilot systems, Software Improvements, has decided to test the country's commitment to open-source software. It is modifying its license to allow only experts who have petitioned for access to see the election system's source code.
"Whilst I generally endorse the concepts and precepts of open-source development and licensing, I am not sure that what is in place now will guarantee the trust in the voting system," said Clive Boughton, chief technology officer at the Australian company.
Others see open-source software as a necessary, if not sufficient, way to keep elections open. In the United States, the Open Vote Foundation plans to use the original software as the basis for an open-source voting system. Digital-rights activists, among others, have called for open-source technologies in U.S. voting systems, but states have largely allowed election machine makers to keep the code a secret.
"If I had to sum up the problems with e-voting in the United States, it would be 'a well-deserved lack of public trust,'" said Scott Ritchie, director of the foundation. "Democracy requires not only public election of officials, but also confidence in election results."
Johns Hopkins' Rubin, a noted critic of current U.S. e-voting system security, believes that with the United States headed into uncharted e-voting territory, doubts about the upccoming presidential election will inevitably arise. "There is no way that the election will not end up with a big question mark on it." Rubin has called for U.S. election officials to require paper ballots for electronic voting systems, but only a handful of officials have adopted the requirement.
Many election machine makers and some voting experts have noted that there has never been a proven case of fraud in using an electronic voting system. But Tony Stanco, associate director of the Cyber Security Policy & Research Institute, said that is not enough.
"The prize here is who gets to control the country," he said. "The stakes are so high that you have to imagine that people will try crazy things, so you have to have a strong system."
That's a lesson that the United States, along with the rest of the world, might have to learn the hard way.