A Close Vote? - Embedded.com

A Close Vote?


On November 7 millions of Americans will go to the polls to try and persuade electronic voting machines to cast a fair vote. If the cynicism expressed by engineers who have been sending me accounts of problems with these devices in any way is mirrored in the results that day, Diebold's machines will decide the election.

That's not entirely fair, as other vendors of these machines, called Direct Recording Electronic Systems, or DREs, have equally-serious problems. In Virginia Hart InterCivic's machines, on the summary page where one acknowledges the choices made before pressing the “vote!” icon, are unable to display the candidate's full name and party affiliation. Seems the font size is too big, so for someone with a long name like “James Webb” the unit shows only “James H. 'Jim'”, the “Jim” being his nickname. No last name. No party affiliation.

It's hard to believe these things were tested when such an obvious flaw slips through.

Another company, Sequoia Voting Systems, is now owned  by acompany connected to whacko Hugo Chavez's Venezuelan government. Don't worry, though; there's no reason Chavez would want to interfere in an American election.

DREs are feature-rich and can even speak as an aid to the visually-impaired. In Yolo County, California some units (not sure which vendor) have surprised poll workers as they can be persuaded to talk only in Vietnamese.

The problem isn't confined to DREs. My state's governor is warning there may be a shortage of paper ballots, and in one county they've run out of envelopes to mail these to voters! The shortage is blamed at least partly on the e-voting problems in the September primary, as some officials are warning voters to cast a paper, not electronic, vote. Supplier of the paper ballots? Diebold.

The electronic voter check-in system, also provided by the same vendor, rebooted after every 43rd check-in.

The irony is that Diebold makes both DREs and ATMs. The latter's software quality is held to an extremely high standard. No bank would tolerate errors. The company is clearly staffed with really smart developers capable of building world-class systems.

The November issue of the Communications of the ACM (not yet online) has a column that claims the feds exempt all commercial-off-the-shelf from any sort of audit when certifying a DRE. That includes Windows CE, the basis of most of these machines. Happily, we know CE is bulletproof from a security standpoint.

We've had six years since the 2000 debacle. The Help America Vote act is four years old. How long does it take to get things right?

In my opinion, the problem is that jurisdictions haven't demanded reliable and secure systems. It is possible to build an absolutely faultless DRE with proprietary code. But only if we demand it. Hold the vendors accountable. Conduct realistic tests long in advance of the election, and don't permit last-minute unvalidated patches.

That may be enough to overcome the growing distrust that may disgust and ultimately turn citizens away from their right to vote. But a better solution is to open the source code. Patent or otherwise protect it, if necessary, but subject the source to the “many eyes” scrutiny to help us trust that the elections are, well, if not fair, at least recorded accurately. Keep all the shenanigans to smoke-filled rooms as we'll never clean that mess up.

One thing we can be sure of. On November 8, in any closely-contested race the lawsuits will start to fly.

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at . His website is .

“… Diebold's machines will decide the election”

YIKES! I certainly hope not! I hope it is the people who cast their votes using the Diebold machine who will decide the election!

There is an interesting article in the latest IEEE Spectrum magazine. It just appalls me that most gov't information systems do not even follow the most rudimentary database practices to keeping our voter registration databases secure and error-free. If we had credit-systems that were modeled after the gov't voter registration, all chaos would reign supreme!

– Ken Wada

Having followed the arguments over your last set of elections with rising disbelief, the idea that you, as the self-proclaimed beacon of democracy, could consider holding an election using equipment such as you have described beggars belief. I am thankful that we still use the proven technology of a pencil and piece of paper that are then sorted and counted. In any close fought constituencies then the we may count them several times. All open and easy to understand.

– Ian Okey

My brother is the local County Clerk and responsible for purchasing the Electronic Voting Machines for Erie County. I believe the real problem is the lack of qualified technical people involved in the selection process. As a software engineer, I volunteered my services to the County and no one was interested in having technical experts on the selection committee.

The voting machine and software should go through a validation process similar to gaming or FDA requirements for medical devices.

Pennsylvania has some arcane law that makes it illegal for the voting machines to provide a printed receipt to the voter.

– Kathleen Smith

One of my buddies worked for an electronic voting machine company doing both hardware and software design.

If _he_ won't trust the electronic voting results, why should any of us!?!?

At least Florida had chad that could be recounted (and recounted and recounted). What does electronic voting offer besides unprovable results?

– Andy Kunz

We all know what's in our various domains' professional literature regarding IT failures and their impact. And if we're willing to be honest with ourselves, we know that what gets reported barely represents the tip of the iceberg. But since we're by and large not willing to be open and honest with the public, they largely don't know about the scope and scale of the problems with IT, save the occasional joke in the comics, editorial or otherwise.

Consider that these systems are called on to operate for all of 12 hours once or twice a year. Consider the real opportunity that provides for the people expected to suport them to gain a feel for how they really operate, their idiosyncracies, etc. Consider the oppportunity for user training this provides.

Oh, I forgot, nobody needs training with this stuff. Just walk right up and intuit them, no problem.

I've been scratching my head to figure out why this application is necessary. It must save money, right? More reliable? Less subject to tampering? Quicker vote counting (God knows I hate waiting until 11PM to get the results)

If I were at all cynical, I'd suspect the companies that make these tools for democracy make contributions to political campaigns and/or parties, and by a stroke of coincident chance they get contracts to supply these highly needed tools.

At least equally likely is that the people making the decisions apply the same level of intellectual acumen as they do to other problems plaguing the Republic, deciding that we need these tools because they're available. Sort of like cell phones. Whatever we do, folks, let's not bite the hands that feed us.

In the December 2000 IEEE “Computer” there is an article entitled “Are We Forgetting the Risks of Information Technology?” It notes that while risk analysis should be conducted before products are introduced, the rate of product introduction makes that esentially impossible to do.

We have met the enemy, and he is us.

– Rick Schrenker

I think it should be noted that a machine that does what it has been designed to do, can not be said to be flawed no matter how fraudulent, dishonest or un-american it's designers may be. These machines deliver exactly what they were intended to.

– Lee Case

The electronic voting issue is not merely technical. It's a prickly social one, based on doubt: people who fear these machines will be less inclined to vote. Doubt disenfranchises the doubter. Whole communities, by agreeing on their doubt, can be lost out of the process, ripping holes in the fabric of democracy.

Engineers like us know that anything can go wrong, at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way. Year by year we erect walls to contain that demon, but still it roars and smokes. We therefore come slowly around to accept the mechanical honesty of such developments as ATM's, gas pumps, the butcher's scale, and (my specialty) automatic inspection equipment. With a voting machine, it's a way bigger innovation. What hangs in its balance (sic) is not a few dollars, but political power. The consequence of error – or corruption – can be enormous.

Therefore, if there's any odor of doubt in the machine or the process, the doubt will be magnified and exploited by political people – the very people who most excel at magnifying and expoiting doubt. Doubt, as noted at the top of this essay, disenfrachises the doubter. Thus, a positive feedback loop is created, complete with hysteresis.

When we care about removing doubt, one of the things we do is test everything out in the open, and allow independent challenges to it. We do NOT cover it up in secrecy. Another thing we do is introduce the innovation gradually, not all at once. Even if it means backing off and trying again a few years later.

We have not yet been allowed to perform independent challenges on networks of voting machines. We have been asked to adopt them universally, in a step function, with insufficient scale-up period. Until we see real challenges, uncontested by the manufacturers, I am sticking with paper. It's easy to do, with an absentee ballot. I wish I knew it were safe…

Doug Raymond

Some corrupt incumbent politicians will be replaced by new corrupt politicians.

– Tom Mazowiesky

Questionable voting machines only exacerbate an existing problem: some are prone to file lawsuits when they lose elections by small margins. Any accusation will do. Yes, let's clean up the voting machines. And the lawyers. And the judges. And the sore-loser politicians. OK, I'm dreaming now.

– Joe Taylor

The true problem here is not the “voting machine”. But instead the competency of the voter. If someone doesn't understand how to punch a hole in a card, how can we expect them to click a check box on a touch screen or fill in a box on a piece of paper. So before you go off on some conspiracy by the manufacturers of electronic voting machines to change elections, perhaps we need to look at whether some basic test needs to be made before a person is allowed to vote at all. Frankly, if someone can't operate a voting machine, then I don't give them much credibility to make a decision on a candidate or issue that effects the future of the country.

– Phil McDermott

Voting machines are an anathema to democracy. They only serve to further remove citizens from participating in the political process.

– Edward Ezzell

In light of recent press reports about Princeton professors successfully hacking voting machines, I was very disturbed to see that my vote in Morris County NJ yesterday was not backed up by a paper ballot. This cannot be that hard to do! Embedded systems engineers successfully solve more sophisticated and challenging problems all the time. Why is it so hard to create a vote recorder that produces an accurate hard copy of the vote at the same time? In the future, I do not want to walk out of the voting site with the same misgivings as I did yesterday.

– Mark Moran

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