Risks in Computerized Elections
Peter G. Neumann
Background. Errors and alleged fraud in computer-based elections
have been recurring Risks Forum themes. The
state of the computing art continues to be primitive. Punch-card systems are seriously flawed and easily tampered with,
and still in widespread use. Direct recording equipment is also suspect, with no ballots, no guaranteed audit trails, and no
real assurances that votes cast are properly recorded and processed. Computerized elections are being run or
considered in many countries, including some notorious for past riggings; thus the risks discussed here exist worldwide.
Erroneous results. Computer-related errors occur with alarming
frequency in elections. Last year there were reports
of uncounted votes in Toronto and doubly counted votes in Virginia and in Durham, North Carolina. Even the U.S.
Congress had difficulties when 435 Representatives tallied 595 votes on a Strategic Defense Initiative measure. An
election in Yonkers NY was reversed because of the presence of leftover test data that accumulated into the totals.
Alabama and Georgia also reported irregularities. After a series of mishaps, Toronto has abandoned computerized
elections altogether. Most of these cases were attributed to ``human error'' and not ``computer error'' (cf. the October
1990 Inside Risks column), and were presumably due to operators and not programmers; however, in the absence of
dependable accountability, who can tell?
Fraud. If wrong results can occur accidentally, they can also
happen intentionally. Rigging has been suspected in
various elections, but lawsuits have been unsuccessful, particularly in the absence of incisive audit trails. In many other
cases, fraud could easily have taken place. For many years in Michigan, manual system overrides were necessary to
complete the processing of noncomputerized precincts, according to Lawrence Kestenbaum. The opportunities for
rigging elections are manifold, including the installation of trapdoors and Trojan horses, child's play for vendors and
knowledgeable election officials. Checks and balances are mostly placebos, and easily subverted. Incidentally, Ken
Thompson's oft-cited Turing lecture, Commun. ACM 27, 8, (August 1984) 761-763, reminds us that tampering can
occur even without any source-code changes; thus, code examination is not enough.
Discussion. The U.S. Congress has the constitutional power to
set mandatory standards for Federal elections, but has
not yet acted. Existing standards for designing, testing, certifying, and operating computerized vote-counting systems are
inadequate and voluntary, and provide few hard constraints, almost no accountability, and no independent expert
evaluations. Vendors can hide behind a mask of secrecy with regard to their proprietary programs and practice,
especially in the absence of controls. Poor software engineering is thus easy to hide. Local election officials are
typically not sufficiently computer-literate to fully understand the risks. In many cases, the vendors run the elections.
Reactions in RISKS. John Board at Duke University expressed surprise
that it took over a day for the doubling of
votes to be detected in eight Durham precincts. Lorenzo Strigini reported last November on a read-ahead
synchronization glitch and an operator pushing for speedier results, which together caused the computer program to
declare the wrong winner in a city election in Rome, Italy. Many of us have wondered how often errors or frauds have
Conclusions. Providing sufficient assurances for computerized
election integrity is a very difficult problem. Serious
risks will always remain, and some elections will be compromised. The alternative of counting paper ballots by hand is
not promising. But we must question more forcefully whether computerized elections are really worth the risks, and if
so, how to impose more meaningful constraints.
Peter G. Neumann is chairman of the ACM Committee on Computers and Public
Policy, moderator of the ACM
Forum on Risks to the Public in the Use of Computers and Related Systems, and editor of ACM SIGSOFT's Software
Engineering Notes (SEN). Contact email@example.com for on-line receipt of RISKS.}
References. The Virginia, Durham, Rome, Yonkers, and Michigan
cases were discussed in ACM Software
Engineering Notes 15, 1 (January 1990), 10-13. Additinal cases were discussed in earlier issues. For background, see
Ronnie Dugger's New Yorker article, 7 November 1988, and a report by Roy G. Saltman, Accuracy, Integrity, and
Security in Computerized Vote-Tallying, NIST (NBS) special publication, 1988. Also, see publications by two
nongovernmental organizations, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (POBox 717, Palo Alto CA 94302)
and Election Watch (a project of the Urban Policy Research Institute, 530 Paseo Miramar, Pacific Palisades CA