Posted at 8:45 p.m. PST Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2001

Let's not rush into electronic voting

Mercury News

The need for speed is taken for granted in Silicon Valley and other bastions of the Digital Age. Technologists often criticize government for its deliberate, even glacial, pace in making decisions and getting things done.

Maybe technology should move fast. But on big decisions, such as changing the way we vote, government should not.

 That's why California's consumers of electricity, in businesses and homes alike, are most likely about to get hosed in coming days as the Legislature rushes to fix the state's energy crisis -- a disaster the lawmakers helped create through their lack of due diligence back in 1996.

 And it's why we should slow down, way down, when it comes to the well-founded national urge to reform elections. Commissions and legislative committees are meeting or preparing to meet across the country, including in Sacramento this week. Yet if we're not careful, we'll get the electoral equivalent of California's botched electricity deregulation.

 It's clear enough that we need to fix the system. But glib notions of all-electronic voting are not just shortsighted. They're dangerous.

 Technology companies tell legislators they've solved all the questions of security, authentication and the like. Yeah, right.

 Yet that's what we're hearing from a variety of companies that want to insert their products into something we can't afford to make any worse, our elections. At least the legislators are hearing from people who understand the risks. Let's hope they're listening.

 Peter Neumann, principal scientist at Menlo Park-based SRI International's Computer Science Lab, will testify today before the California Assembly Committee on Elections Reapportionment and Constitutional Amendments. He'll tell the members that the highest risks involve electronic voting systems, with so-called ``Internet voting'' the most dangerous of all. Internet voting is the idea of voting from home or a public terminal via nothing but an Internet connection.

 ``You can't trust the software platforms on which systems are running,'' he told me Tuesday. ``You can't trust the servers. You can't even be assured you're getting software from the server you think you're getting it from.''

 What about requiring that the software running voting machines be ``open source'' -- publishing the source code, or programming instructions, so that outside experts can examine it for flaws or back doors that could be exploited by people who wanted to rig an election? Better, but still flawed, according to Neumann.

 ``If it's running on an operating system that's corruptible in the first place, the whole thing is subvertible,'' he said. ``Looking at the source is nice, but it actually proves nothing.''

 We do need to improve the way we cast and tabulate ballots. Some non-Internet-based form of electronic voting might work, given sufficient safeguards.

 Neumann and others who've looked at this, including Rebecca Mercuri (, professor of computer science at Bryn Mawr College, make a strong case that some kind of paper record is essential no matter what kind of system we choose. If we voted by touching video screens, for example, the machine should spit out a paper ballot we can double-check for errors and then put into a secured box for recounting, if necessary.

 Maybe, as some have suggested, we should return to paper ballots, period. Sure, optical scanners could speed the counting process, but some kind of paper trail is absolutely crucial.

 The fact that some precincts and counties report results so late isn't so much a technical problem as a personnel issue. On a local basis, Americans simply don't give election officials the resources they need.

 Internet voting is a wretched idea, period, and will be for some time to come. Even if we fixed the security problems, which seems almost impossible, and found a way to give everyone access to Internet-connected machines, we'd create a new and more dangerous problem -- instant decisions, which could lead to the worst kind of mob rule.

 We elect people to make informed decisions on our behalf, separating ourselves from lawmaking, for excellent reasons. Certainly the system is horribly flawed, with special interests polluting everything with money and influence. But some deliberation is better than none.

 On Saturday, the nation will inaugurate a new president. We need to make sure that the president who succeeds George W. Bush actually won.

 But we shouldn't rush, thereby making matters worse. As someone told me when I was a child, ``If you're in a hurry, do it slowly.''

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