So under such a system, we're leaving our trust in the paper ballots and in the audits, while using the software only for automating the tallying process?
Exactly, and someday, in the cryptography.
As we look toward November, which is not that far away, are there any changes that you recommend should be made before the November elections?
You don't want to start changing your voting systems in June before a November election. In some states, it's too late. I think we can put audits in place and observation and gather statistics and do good exit polling. But in Maryland, for example, we have electronic voting. In 2010, we're going to switch to paper systems. That gives us two years. I don't see how we could do it in a few months.
So bottom line, in your opinion, here now in the summer of 2008, are we better off now than we were in Florida in November 2000 during the presidential election, when the winner of the race eventually had to be determined by the US Supreme Court?
Much better. Most states have switched to paper records. I don't know that even in the future we'll have an election as close as that one. That was the perfect storm of problems. They were using punch cards that were poorly designed. Every technology can be designed well or designed badly. And it can be used well or used badly. I think we also learned a lot about voting, and election officials have learned more about technology. So I think we are through the hardest part, and things are improving. We're definitely much better than we were in 2004, when we had 37 states that were using fully electronic voting that was poorly designed, without paper ballot backups.
And now most of those have switched to paper-based optical scan systems?
Right. There are only a few that are still all-electronic, including Tennessee and Maryland. But both have laws to switch in 2010.
Well, then what problem remains?
The problem to a great extent has been improved on. The problem in 2004 was that very few of the systems were software-independent because they relied on the software to keep and store vote tallies. In my opinion, most systems that use optical scanning of paper ballots, whether they are generated by computer or by hand, are likely to have that property. But you could conceive of designing it so badly that it didn't have it.
What would it take to make existing e-voting equipment software-independent? Would it take a drastic rewrite of code?
I don't think it's going to be very hard. I think there are many vendors that sell systems that I would consider to be software-independent. Almost any system that uses an optical scan paper ballot is software-independent because you have the paper ballot that you can go back to and you can audit. But again, it's not if you don't randomly audit the ballots after the election. You do have to make sure that proper auditing is done, otherwise you're trusting the software and the scanner. A lot of states do very poor auditing, if at all.
So maybe we aren't that far away from making the system safer and more secure?
Yeah, I'm much more optimistic than I was a few years ago.