Howard Marks

Network Computing Blogger

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Voting Machines Should Be As Secure As Slot Machines

Once again, many of us will stay up way past our bedtimes to watch the results of what the pundits have called "the most significant election in our lifetime." And once again there are controversies over the technology we use to collect and count the vote. I propose we make our voting technology at least as safe, secure and reliable as our gambling technology.

If we were an intelligent people, we would have learned from the Florida fiasco in 2000 that vote counting is a serious business, and needs to be made reliable and trustworthy. Instead, vested interests saw a new generation of voting machines as a way to make a profit, reward their friends and keep themselves in power. A small number of companies make voting machines in this country, and those companies' executives are frequently involved in politics. One company's CEO famously was the state chairman of a presidential candidate's state committee, and made a speech guaranteeing that candidate would carry the state that used machines his company made.

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Even worse, politicians have allowed the voting machine companies to claim the software that runs them is a trade secret. Thus, election boards have bought machines without demanding that the vendors provide:

• A valid audit trail, such as a printed ballot the voter can verify

• A mechanism for recounting the printed ballots on a machine made by another vendor so the results can be compared

• An audit of the software by an independent third party to insure that the software accurately records and tabulates the voter's true intent

As a result we get articles like Voting Machines: Why We'll Never Trust Them and How I Hacked An Electronic Voting Machine; viral videos that show votes being switched from the voter's candidate to the other; and reports that the secretary of state of Ohio ordered "experimental" software updates to voting machines just days before the election.

I worked as a consultant for several years to companies and Native American Tribal Nations that operate casinos around the country. The gaming industry, and the states that regulate it, take the integrity of their games very seriously. While we all know that slot machines have a house advantage, if the public started to believe that the game was actually rigged and the casino operators could pick winners and losers, they would stop spending billions of dollars a year in casinos.

As a result, before a slot or video gaming machine can be used in most casinos, it must be approved by the Nevada Gaming Control Board or its equivalents in New Jersey, Mississippi or Montana. These organizations examine the source code for every gaming machine in great detail to ensure the machines actually give the payback percentage they're supposed to.

I propose that the federal government establish a lab that does the same for voting machines, and makes it a felony for anyone to sell a voting machine that has not been approved by the independent lab. In addition, all federal funding should be dependent on using machines that have been so approved.

The slot machine industry is several times bigger, and significantly more competitive, than the voting machine industry. If IGT, Bally's and Aristocrat can compete for the slot market, then Diebold and Election Systems and Software can stand the same level of scrutiny.

Note that the intent of this rant is not to espouse my political beliefs or to point fingers at one political party over another, but to improve the reliability of our elections and the public's confidence in them. I think that's a position everyone can support.

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