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Dec 4, 2002

Calvin Senior Studies Voting

Voting systems have received significant scrutiny in recent elections, including the controversies in Florida in the last Presidential election. So Calvin College senior Matt Post had a lot to dig into when he made computerized voting systems the focus of his senior project as a computer science major.

And after months of research he has come to some conclusions about the prospects for major changes to the ways in which Americans vote. He will share those findings on Thursday, December 5 at 3:30 p.m. at Calvin in North Hall 253.

"The many problems with voting systems in recent years have given rise to a great pressure to replace traditional mechanical systems with electronic ones," says Post, a native of Fremont and graduate of Fremont High. "Proponents of electronic systems hope that using computers to manage elections will eliminate voter fraud, lost or miscalculated ballots, and other errors, and thus capture the true will of the people, electronically."

Post designed a system that could be used for electronic voting. And he will demonstrate it in his Calvin presentation. But, says Post, the problems surrounding electronic voting are myriad and complex. "There are many issues, social as well as technological, which make achieving this hope (nationwide secure electronic voting) very difficult," he says.

Even his own system, he says, could not actually be used.

"I focused," he says, "on one piece of the election process: ballot storage on public networks. In order to actually be used, my system would have to be integrated with secure means of registering voters, ensuring their identity, presenting them with the ballot and transmitting those ballots to the storage servers (where my project comes into the picture). Furthermore, my system is still vulnerable to many kinds of attacks. However, I believe that these vulnerabilities are inherent in computers and networking and are not specific to my system."

One of the benefits often touted for electronic voting is the ability for people to avoid a trip to the polls by voting from their home or their workplace. Post calls this the "voting in your underwear" dream. And he says it's a fantasy not likely to come to fruition anytime soon.

"The internet," he says, "is too insecure. It would be relatively trivial for an attacker to release viruses that spread via email and infect people's systems before elections, perhaps preparing those computers to alter votes, or redirect them to a malicious server which then intercepts the vote and changes it or blocks it from being cast. This could be done behind the scenes without the voter ever knowing."

The dangers are not quite so bad with polling-place Internet voting, where the Internet is used for the underlying ballot delivery structure, but votes can only be cast from designated polling stations. Yet even there, Post notes, there is no guarantee that what is being presented on the screen is what is actually being stored on the computer when a vote is made. Says Post: "You can't be sure that your vote will actually be stored and counted correctly." He says the same is true of paper ballots, since someone could later remove a ballot from the box, but the problem with computers is that this can occur on such a large scale, especially with computers on a public network.

Finally Post says that while there is a need to reevaluate confusing voting systems such as butterfly ballots and punchcards it is just as easy to make a bad and confusing interface with a computer.

"People often seem to believe in technology as a panacea for all of society's woes," he says. "A well-designed electronic voting system that maintains privacy, contains an open specification for the computer's code, and maintains an audit trail of printed paper ballots reviewed by the voter could well bring benefits to the voting process. But the current trend isn't in that direction."

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Contact Phil de Haan
616-957-6475 (v)
616-957-7069 (f)