Thanks to erstwhile election texpert Dan Wallach for bring attention to the burglary of an early voting center in Houston, and to the Houston Chronicle’s Chris Moran for coverage of the story including good quotes from Dan! But I have to add that in addition to theft of computers containing voter records, there were also voting machines (Hart InterCivic DRE devices and the central controller for them) that were not stolen, but the thieves had access to. And as I’ve pointed out a number of times, it’s a shame that these voting systems (Hart and all the others) store vote data on re-writable media, and of course the software is equally modifiable as well. It’s one thing to have these fundamentally vulnerable machines in county facilities, or temporary deployed during Election Day in polling places under the watchful eye of poll workers — but another to leave them sitting in community center utility rooms overnight, night after night for a couple weeks. The votes (the electronic recording of e-ballots) are just sitting there protected by a lock on the door.
But even more importantly, as Dan pointed out to me, the real problem is confidence in the election result. Suppose a contest in this election is close, and someone claims that the election results from this particular precinct are anomalous or suspicious. It would be impractical to prove the negative — that the machines or the vote data were not tampered with, even though we know there was opportunity for it. Now, don’t get me wrong. In this case I doubt that bad guys were trying to sway this election by jiggering a handful of DREs, using special skills to falsify the security seals on the devices, and calling attention to the deed by ripping off some PCs. But because these voting machines are vulnerable in their basic design, incidents like this one can’t help but give naysayers the ability to cast doubt on the election results. We can do better — and will.
But technology aside, I still have questions on the election officials’ response to the incident. As Moran reported, yes they will check the security seals (twice!) and will assume that, absent evidence of tampering, these machines are in the same state that they left election HQ, and that the data they recorded was not effected either. But suppose that the thieves banged the machines about a bit, broke a security seal, flaked out a disk drive – or even that someone walked by with a big magnet in their pocket, and scrambled a few bits? The machines would show evidence of tampering or damage, but vote data on them might still be recoverable. Should those votes count in the election result? There is no really good answer – either way, public confidence in the election results is compromised. That can’t be prevented 100% by any technology, but here is a novel idea: let’s design voting technology so that we purposely avoid having it be the Achilles Heel of public confidence. OK, maybe it’s not so novel, but it is what we’re doing.