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ACM Experts See Opportunities and Risks for E-Voting

Technology Leaders Stress Need to Build Trust in Computer-Based Voting Systems

The Association for Computing Machinery
Advancing Computing as a Science & Profession


Virginia Gold

Cameron Wilson


Washington, DC, October 14, 2008 – As the 2008 election nears, electronic voting experts from ACM will be monitoring the reliability of voting equipment, including new systems deployed in many locations across the country.  These computerized voting machines, intended to eliminate the confusion and errors that marred recent elections, offer opportunities for efficiency and ease of voting.  They also pose new risks to accuracy and reliability that could undermine trust in the voting process and the technology that drives it.  These experts, from ACM’s U.S. Public Policy Committee (USACM), will be analyzing voting issues around the nation as Election Day approaches.

“Several recent electoral experiences have demonstrated that convenience and speed of vote counting are no substitute for accuracy of results and voter confidence that their vote was cast as counted,” said Eugene Spafford, chair of USACM. “Today’s e-voting infrastructure may not be up to the task but tomorrow’s could be - if the technology is engineered and tested carefully, and deployed with safeguards against failure.”

Spafford, director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS) at Purdue University, and professor of computer science at Purdue, said that USACM has worked at all levels – from Federal boards to local polling places – to ensure that effective safeguards are used by computer-based systems for voting.  He said voting technologies that employ software-independent verification systems are a key mechanism to building voter trust.

To protect against software bugs or malicious computer code, Spafford stressed the need for a physical (i.e. paper) record to enable voters to verify that their votes have been cast accurately, and to provide a means of audit in the case of disputes.  He also recommended that voting systems be independently tested by qualified technical experts.

The anticipated heavy voter turnout is a crucial test for many newly installed or overhauled voter registration databases (VRDs), which the federal Help American Vote Act (HAVA) required states to put in place.  These records of voter eligibility information are the gatekeepers of voter participation.  When they are used for real-time electronic checking of voter eligibility, they must be able to withstand the stresses of Election Day conditions.  In 2006, some systems in Colorado failed, leading to extensive delays and voter frustration because they were not tested in real election situations.  VRDs must also control for data entry errors as well as data merges and security concerns to avoid voter disenfranchisement, personal information leaks, and voter fraud.

ACM Former President Barbara Simons co-authored ACM’s report on Voter Registration Databases (VRD), which includes nearly 100 high-level recommendations to help states comply with Federal laws that require computerized statewide electronic databases.  “Long delays and contested voter eligibility have been caused by problems with VRD systems,” said Simons, a co-founder of USACM.   “This year’s election may see record turnouts, and systems that aren’t built to best practices – such as the ones we documented – may cause Election Day havoc in some locales.”  In August 2008, Simons was appointed to the Board of Advisors for the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), the Federal body that oversees voting technology standards.

USACM member Harry Hochheiser said that the interaction between humans and technology is critical to ensuring that these systems - especially voting-related systems - function properly.  “Even if the software works perfectly, we need careful training and rigorous usability testing to prevent problems in the future,” said Hochheiser, professor of Computer and Information Sciences at Towson University.  “Both the technical and election communities must work together to develop computerized voting and electronic registration systems that deserve the public’s trust.”

Spafford, Simons, Hochheiser and other USACM electronic voting experts will track voting processes in key states, and are available to analyze voting issues around the nation.


About ACM

ACM, the Association for Computing Machinery, is the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society, uniting computing educators, researchers and professionals to inspire dialogue, share resources and address the field’s challenges. ACM strengthens the computing profession’s collective voice through strong leadership, promotion of the highest standards, and recognition of technical excellence. ACM supports the professional growth of its members by providing opportunities for life-long learning, career development, and professional networking.


The ACM U.S. Public Policy Committee (USACM) serves as the focal point for ACM's interaction with U.S. government organizations, the computing community, and the U.S. public in all matters of U.S. public policy related to information technology.  Supported by ACM's Washington, D.C., Office of Public Policy, USACM responds to requests for information and technical expertise from U.S. government agencies and departments, seeks to influence relevant U.S. government policies on behalf of the computing community and the public, and provides information to ACM on relevant U.S. government activities. USACM also identifies potentially significant technical and public policy issues and brings them to the attention of ACM and the community.

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