Next-generation Canadian voting technology is making its way onto the American political stage.
The secure voting technology was developed by the University of Ottawa last year and tested in graduate student elections. “It was originally called Punchscan, and it was a proof of concept. But it had some rough edges,” says Aleks Essex, team member and PhD student in cryptography and information security.
The technology has evolved dramatically over the past year, and the new system has been renamed Scantegrity. “We’re now two generations ahead of Punchscan,” says Essex.
Scantegrity is still an academic effort and its team is loosely organized along open-source principles, he says. Comprised of a core group of collaborating members from Canadian and American universities, the team is headed by David Chaum, an L.A.-based cryptographic scientist and founder of DigiCash Inc. “This is a quantum improvement over any other voter system proposed,” says Chaum.
Scantegrity is designed to provide end-to-end verifiable voter results, explains Essex. The key problem in automated voter technology is unlinking ballots from citizens’ identities while still providing them a way to check that their ballots were cast.
“Scantegrity gives voters a privacy-preserving receipt,” explains Essex. “It doesn’t show other people how you voted, but it does allow you to have a way to check to ensure your vote gets counted.” The concept is similar to hotels that issue confirmation numbers, he says. “You can go online and look up your confirmation number, but it doesn’t display your room number.”
Another security feature Scantegrity provides is software independence. “This means if an error is made in the software, that mistake can’t go through the process undetected. There’s a tool that does a cryptographic self-audit to verify computations.”
To fortify this process, the Scantegrity team plans to invite the Ottawa Linux users group to review it. “This isn’t open source code but rather open source specifications – the recipe is open. For example, a process that uses 1 +1=2 isn’t necessarily a software program but you could write one.”
Despite these features, it’s unlikely the Canadian federal government or provinces will ever be interested in the technology, he says. “The paper and pencil ballot in box approach is a pretty good system, and I’m speaking as a cryptographer here,” he says.
But Scantegrity could be useful in the US, where voting machines are used everywhere. “We have a federal body, Elections Canada that dictates the rules right down to the pencils. But in the US, it’s decided at the county level, and there are thousands of variations. Some places still use lever machines that crank gears, like starting a locomotive.”
Chaum says two American municipalities have expressed interest in using Scantegrity, but these cities have not made public announcements yet.
U.S.counties are proceeding cautiously in this area. Voting machines developed by Diebold Inc, a North Canton, OH-based manufacturer, created controversy in the 2004 elections. The machines weren’t designed with the security and audit features developed for Scantegrity, says Essex. “California bought a number of Diebold machines, but they were decertified last summer. A report by a group of experts that tested several voting technologies concluded there were ways to bypass Diebold’s security.”
But Diebold’s machines had advanced accessibility features which Scantegrity is now tackling, he says. The US has many complicated rules around voting, including one that forbids the use of an assistant in voting. In Canada, people who have visual or other impairments can sign a release allowing someone to vote on their behalf. Not so in the US, where voting machines must accommodate a range of disabilities.
“Diebold’s touch screens have advanced accessibility feature like headsets for the visually impaired, but the machines are not as good at integrity and privacy,” he says.
Companies must spend millions on certification and compliance with legislation in the US, so voting machine development has been the domain of large enterprises with deep pockets to date. Essex says Scantegrity has been presented to a number of American organizations in an effort to attract research funding, including the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a Washington-based think tank.
“The question now is whether our technology will be certifiable. A group of election experts and scientists is saying a window should be allowed to give new voting technologies a chance, and there’s legislation pending to allow that. Americans are in a bit of frenzy about this now, and are calling for research.”
While developing technology to automate in-person voting is surprisingly difficult, online voting has even thornier issues, says Chaum. “Many experts believe there’s a fundamental inability to prevent online voters from selling their votes or being coerced into voting a certain way. And there are also subtle problems, like the possibility that a computer virus could infect the machines and change the way people vote without their knowledge.”
But voting experts aren’t saying these issues are impossible to resolve, just that all methods proposed to date have failed to resolve all the issues comprehensively, he says. “Scantegrity’s mechanisms are well-suited for part of the online voting security issue, but not the whole thing. But I believe the problems with online voting will be solved eventually.”