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Opinions of Sunday, 29 November 2009

Columnist: Amponsah, John

Electronic Voting Machines and a New Era of Fixing Elections

By John Amponsah

The purpose for writing this article is to discuss some of the vulnerabilities inherent in electronic voting and to also point out some historical voting irregularities in relation to two past US elections where electronic voting machines have been extensively used. The specific aim is to provide some information on the subject of e-voting, since it looks like Ghana may be going down that route soon or at least some Ghanaians are campaigning strongly for the introduction of electronic voting machines to be used in Ghanaian elections. This article is also a response to the November 26th Ghanaweb article entitled Why Ghanaians must push for Biometric Voting in 2012 and to other articles written by both NPP and NDC supporters calling for Biometric/E-voting. I hope that by looking at some of the difficulties brought about by using electronic voting machines in the US, Ghana may be able to avoid such pitfalls in order to maintain our election record and our democratic reputation.

FLAWS OBSERVED WITH DIEBOLD ELECTRONIC VOTING MACHINES

The state of Maryland spent $55million on electronic voting systems, which were then broken into, in 10 seconds. Susan Bernecker, a Republican Party candidate in Louisiana went to a warehouse where electronic voting machines used in an election (she lost) were kept. She went to independently verify these machines in the presence of election officials, as candidates have this right. What she found with 15 machines among those she checked was that when she voted for herself and checked the result display (usually secret during a real election) her opponent's name was displayed there. This is not an isolated problem, but one commonly reported to occur with the electronic voting machine called Diebold (also the company’s name) used in about 80% of American e-voting.

The Diebold electronic voting system which is widely used in e-voting in America was shown to have a vote tabulation system where vote totals could be easily changed from a central source. This flaw in the machine was not fixed immediately upon discovery. The tabulation system has further more been shown to be vulnerable to hackers because it uses a database system whose files can easily be manipulated from the outside.

Avi Ruben, Professor of Computer Science at Johns Hopkins University and 3 of his colleagues produced a research paper entitled “Analysis of an Electronic voting System” (http://avirubin.com/vote.pdf) based on an analysis of the Diebold software (source code) which he was lucky to receive from an activist. Dr Ruben found that one can hack into an election without even knowing how the system worked. In his words, "it is possible to manipulate [the Diebold electronic voting system] in a way that is very difficult to detect". This is the problem not only with Diebold but also with other electronic voting machines used in the US, such as ES&S and Sequoia. He has also written a book entitled “Brave New Ballot: The Battle to Safeguard Democracy in the Age of Electronic Voting” which some Ghanaians keen on advocating electronic voting might be interested in reading.

E-VOTING IN AMERICA’S 2000 AND 2004 ELECTIONS – THE DISCREPANCIES

We all know how important the US 2000 election was. Had Gore been declared the winner, perhaps the history of that country would have been different over the last nine years. Florida was a particularly contentious state for a number of reasons, a big one being the way in which African-Americans were massively disenfranchised, however we shall stick with the subject of electronic voting which in its own right provides some amazing discrepancies. The famous one is the case of Volusia county, Florida (anyone can conduct further research into all of these facts I’m writing about if they choose to). In this particular county, Al Gore famously received ‘negative votes’ in the 2000 election. He had received -16,022 votes as recorded by the Diebold Accu-Vote 2000 electronic voting machines, effectively the electronic voting machines had somehow managed to count backwards! This is in a county that had only 585 registered voters! Somehow Bush managed to get 2,813 votes and Al Gore managed to get -16,022 votes. Had this 'discrepancy' not been noticed by one observant election official, it could have gone unnoticed. So you do the maths, and if you are in doubt read about this on the web. How is it possible for a county of 585 registered voters to generate 2,813 votes for one candidate, and even more mysteriously, -16,022 votes for another?

This one still remains as one of the 'unsolved mysteries' surrounding the Diebold system, although some Florida election officials have gone on record to say that it is not possible for such numbers to occur on a system without the system having being manipulated. The numbers were later changed to Bush:22, Gore:192 and Nadar:1, but the initial 'discrepancy' couldn't have been due to machine error because only the totals for the presidential race were affected! Indeed, it should not be a mystery at all. This historical event should be kept in mind by all of us Ghanaians who are interested in this debate surrounding electronic voting machines. The lesson as I see it is that election discrepancies happen with paper elections but if done with electronic voting machines, the potential for discrepancies to occur can be taken to a whole new level and the entire election can be fixed by manipulating these machines.

Discrepancies were not limited only to the US 2000 election. Diebold machines also suffered complaints from voters in the 2004 election. It was shown that the optical scanning machines for New Mexico were producing votes for George Bush regardless of the vote! In other places, voter choices were not registering the person they had voted for. Upon voting, a voter's choice jumped from the chosen square to the square above or below, to another voter's name!

ELECTRONIC VOTING AND GHANAIAN ELECTIONS

Ghanaians may not get the chance to check the software of these machines to determine how votes are counted. Unlike the paper voting process where all parties can decide upon which ballots are good and which are not good ballots, with the electronic voting machines, the public could be faced with a situation whereby a company in a foreign country provides proprietary software and hardware to the Ghanaian government for the purposes of voting. Ghanaians can wave their voting right goodbye because these machines will be inscrutable and could take voting irregularities to another level, making what happened in the 2008 Ghana election seem small in comparison. Perhaps in the future more secure, open source systems may be available to any country (similar to open source operating systems like Linux/Unix) but for the moment, Electronic Voting hardware and software is produced privately, without open access to what is going on in these machines. Should we then trust these private companies just because they say we should? You do the maths.

CONCLUSION In this article, the focus has primarily been on the Diebold electronic voting system since it is widely used in the US, a country usually held in high esteem for championing democracy. Yet it has also been pointed out in the article that vulnerabilities exist not only with Diebold but with other e-voting machines such as &S and Sequoia.

Whichever government decides to make these electronic voting machines a part of the voting process in Ghana should hopefully invest in a completely open source platform where both software code and hardware specifications can be independently checked by the citizens of Ghana, and where a complete audit system is in place to trace votes and to check for irregularities. All ORIGINAL computer logs from these electronic voting machines should be stored for posterity (or at least for a protracted period of time) rather than having them destroyed after a short period of time. Even if the government promises these things, voters should be weary and not go only by the word and good will of the government.

Such a system must be presented to the Ghanaian people including the studies made to show that the system is secure before a purchase is made and certainly before installation. If these and other strong measures are not taken then we could have a situation where electronic voting machines could be used to control elections. We could have a situation where one candidate gets more votes than the all the voters in one constituency or where one candidate gets negative votes in a very supportive constituency. We know that these things can happen because they have been observed in American elections where electronic voting machines have been used.

Perhaps rather than rush into investing in costly e-voting systems shown to be vulnerable to election manipulation, for the time being Ghana may be better off sticking with our slow but sure paper-based voting system that allows for the counting of votes to be observed by the plebs, the citizens who voted.

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