Statement in support of a voter-verified paper audit trail for electronic voting systems

Every June several thousand delegates gather for the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a liberal religious denomination representing congregations throughout the United States. It’s a five-day event featuring hundreds of workshops, lectures, worship services, and social gatherings, plus plenary sessions that conduct the business of the Association.

One function of the plenary sessions is to consider “Actions of Immediate Witness”— resolutions that address timely matters of ethical or spiritual import in the wider society. In 2004, one of these resolutions was devoted to the subject of electronic voting. You can find the final, adopted text of the resolution HERE. Though I did not draft the statement, I had the privilege of speaking on its behalf from the floor of the Assembly. These were my remarks:

My name is Michael Scott. I am a delegate from the First Universalist Church of Rochester, NY, and a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Rochester.

For 20 years I have helped to develop the technology of distributed computing, and I must tell you: there is no reason to expect electronic voting machines to be any more reliable than the ATM that won’t let you withdraw your money, the corporate web site that is hijacked by hackers, or the check-out register that rings up the wrong price for frozen orange juice. Most of those machines work right most of the time, but you know they aren’t perfect, and a voting machine is harder to get right: it will be set up on a temporary basis by non-experts and subjected to extremely heavy, concentrated use, in a social context that provides an almost irresistible target for mischief and fraud.

The solution is very simple: in addition to recording your vote, an electronic voting machine needs to print a slip of paper that you can read and then drop in old-fashioned ballot box. If the election results are uncontested the ballots never get used. But if anything goes wrong we can count them by hand and be sure. It’s a beautiful backup: cheap, easy, and obvious, but it isn’t being used, because somebody doesn’t want you to know if their machines ever start to mess up.

Done right, electronic voting can be a big improvement over butterfly ballots and hanging chads. But without a voter-verified paper audit trail, there will be no way to be sure. If we allow the machines now on the market to become the elections standard, there will be no more recounts and no more verification. The next time someone steals Florida we won’t even know it happened, and we wouldn’t be able to prove it if we did.

Please support this action of immediate witness.

Page created 14 July 2004 / Michael Scott's email address