Dr. C. Scott Ananian (cananian) wrote,
Dr. C. Scott Ananian

Auditing the Venezuela Elections

Ed Felten has an article on the recent Venezuelan elections on his blog, Freedom To Tinker; I made some comments over there that I want to repost here.

According to David M. Rosenberg, "The following full-page advertisement ran on page 9 (of at least the New England edition) of the New York Times on Sunday, 22-Aug-2004:

10 Million votes cast. Zero hanging chads.
(In the Venezuelan presidential recall)

It's called the Smartmatic Automated Election System. And it guarantees 100% accuracy.

From Smartmatic comes the world's most transparent, secure and auditable electronic voting system.

In Venezuela's recent Presidential Recall Referendum, in more than 4,700 polling places, using over 20,000 voting machines, the system reliably recorded every vote electronically cast. Zero percent error margin. No hanging chads. No null votes. Then it transmitted the data over secure lines using bank-level PKI 128-bit encryption, as part of 250 layered security mechanisms, making possible quick, accurate tabulation of the results. And better yet, the system is auditable in every possible way including with a physical paper trail. It's so secure that full source code audits are allowed for election authorities and approved third parties.

Because no one should ever have to wonder if their vote will count.

All things Connected

Boca Raton, Florida"

Now my comments on the above:

First, I think the Venezuelan government deserves a refund.

After all, Smartmatic "guarantees 100% accuracy", and even the most cursory audit of 82 machines found a discrepancy of .02%. This is a good number, but the sample is extremely small, not random (192 machines were intended to be audited, but only 82 actually were), and just compares the paper record to the electronic totals (why would there be any discrepancy at all?). It does not include errors due to voter confusion, registration problems, inability to cast votes, inaccurate summation, etc. [Source: http://www.cartercenter.org/doc1807.htm]

I react very strongly to snake-oil claims like "100% accuracy". Every real election system will have some error rate, because humans are not perfect (even if the technology by some miracle is). The goal is to make this as small as possible, and to "be more careful" (recounts, etc) when the reported results are within your best estimate of the error rate of the process. Even soap only claims to be 99.44% pure. =)

Similarly, doesn't the advertisment's claim of 'no null votes' presume an error-free voter?

We also have the classic snake-oil claim, "250 layered security mechanisms". If the security mechanisms work, why do you need 250 of them? If they don't, will 250 insecure mechanisms yield a secure mechanism? And why exactly 250? Why not 251, or 249?

Don't get me wrong -- there might be real valid security underneath this claim. But the wording of the claim unsettles me.

I applaud the use of auditable systems. But it seems the real trick here is to actually audit them. We already have claims like 'the Yes vote had been cut by more than 75 percent' in one location (Valle de la Pascua) where the voting papers were recounted (http://www.iht.com/articles/534518.html)

There were two separate organizations watching the process (the Carter Center and Sumate), and they have both endorsed the 'official' results. The Carter Center conducted another small audit of 150 machines (whose quantitative results they have not yet released). They also did exit polling in a few select locations and compared these results with the results transmitted to the central server, and found agreement within 1%. Finally, they took some results from the central server and projected a country-wide result, which apparently agreed with the final result.

In my opinion, however, not enough details have been released about this process to convince me one way or another. How were locations chosen? Was there any way that the system could be gamed? What were the real error rates of the machines? What were the actual election incidents encountered (broken machines, late openings, intimidated or confused voters, etc). There are bound to be at least some. I don't believe in perfection, and I'm suspicious of any claim to it.

I look forward to Prof Felten's statistical investigation of the 'matching vote' question soon, too. Keep your eye on Freedom To Tinker.

Tags: elections

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