UC Berkeley News


Berkeley to join NSF-funded center studying e-voting
Public confidence in balloting, shaken by the last two presidential elections, has not been improved by the first generation of electronic systems. Berkeley experts will participate in an effort to make these devices 'trustworthy'

| 26 August 2005

Berkeley researchers will join colleagues at five institutions nationwide in an effort to improve the reliability and trustworthiness of electronic-voting technology.

The National Science Foundation has announced that it will provide $7.5 million over five years for the new endeavor, called A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable, and Transparent Elections (ACCURATE). Berkeley is expected to receive approximately $1.3 million of the funds.

The new center, led by Johns Hopkins University, will bring together experts in computer science, law, and usability in an interdisciplinary effort to improve the nation's voting systems. Avi Rubin, professor of computer science and technical director of the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins, will be principal investigator of the new center, the first large research effort into robust electronic-voting systems.

In addition to Berkeley and Johns Hopkins, other participating institutions are Rice University, Stanford University, the University of Iowa, and SRI International.

The center's researchers will investigate methods of mitigating known problems with existing voting technologies - for example, adding a voter-verified paper trail and cryptographic voting methods to aid audits - as well as explore new solutions with computerized voting systems.

"We'll look into ways of making the innards of the machine more trustworthy," says David Wagner, a Berkeley assistant professor of computer sciences and co-principal investigator of the center. "This could range from building software that would make it hard for somebody to insert malicious logic without detection to building machines that include components from multiple vendors so the system can cross-check itself."

Attacking the systems with everything they've got

"The 2000 presidential election and ensuing legal challenges were a stark reminder that the machinery of democracy matters," says Deirdre Mulligan, a Berkeley law professor, director of the Samuelson Law, Technology, and Public Policy Clinic at Boalt Hall, and a co-principal investigator of the center. "Legal and policy concerns must be taken into consideration during the research and design process to ensure that the next generation of voting systems reflects our democratic commitments to equality, accessibility, privacy, and security."

The researchers will put the voting systems they study through an aggressive battery of attacks, seeking flaws so they can design countermeasures before the systems are tested in the field.

The announcement comes as an increasing number of election officials nationwide are looking to electronic machines as alternatives to punchcard ballots (with their hanging chads) and other outdated balloting methods. According to Election Data Services, the percentage of registered voters in the United States using electronic voting equipment jumped from 13 percent in 2000 to 29 percent in 2004.

"Many of today's e-voting systems were rushed into production in response to the pressure to replace paper balloting after the controversial 2000 presidential election," says Wagner. "It was done before the research community was able to lay the groundwork to ensure that these electronic systems wouldn't replace old problems with new ones."

Concerns over the ability to verify votes cast electronically have led some states, including California, to mandate a paper trail when e-voting machines are used. However, in late July, e-voting machines manufactured by Diebold Election Systems were rejected by California election officials after mock election tests revealed an unacceptably high rate of screen freezes and paper jams.

Questions also emerged after the 2004 presidential election with reports of problems with the use of computerized voting equipment. Few of the reported irregularities were significant enough to change the outcome of an election, but the cases further shook public trust in the devices.

"Election laws and procedures have not kept pace with developments in voting technology," Mulligan notes. "Recounts, for example, provide an essential check in paper-ballot voting systems, but the electronic-voting systems in use during the last several elections make meaningful recounts impossible because they do not maintain a stable, voter-verified record of each vote. Public trust in elections requires voting systems worthy of trust."

The researchers point out that the results from the center's studies may also be applied to online auctions and such fields as spyware prevention.

"Fundamentally, improving elections systems is critical to maintaining the integrity of democracy itself," says Wagner.