Category: electronic voting

Securing the Vote – US National Academies 2018 consensus report

The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) uses a comprehensive study process to ensure high standards of scientific and technical quality.

On September 6, 2018 they released their 2018 consensus report

Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy

The report is available to download as a PDF (login isn’t required, you can download as a guest) and is also posted to read online.  (See blog note 1 for the definition of a consensus report.)

The key conclusions highlighted in the introduction to the release are:

All U.S. Elections Should Use Paper Ballots by 2020 …; Internet Voting Should Not Be Used at This Time

Emphasis (bolding) above mine.

Ensuring the Integrity of Elections

Chapter 5: Ensuring the Integrity of Elections contains many sections relevant to voting technology.  Below are selected extracts only; please read the entire chapter for the full details.

Malware (pp. 86-87)

Malware can be introduced at any point in the electronic path of a vote—from the software behind the vote-casting interface to the software tabulating votes—to prevent a voter’s vote from being recorded as intended.

Maintaining Voter Anonymity (pp. 87-88)

With remote voting—voting outside of publicly monitored poll sites—it may not be difficult to compromise voter privacy. When voting, for example, by mail, fax, or via the Internet, individuals can be coerced or paid to vote for particular candidates outside the oversight of election administrators.

Election Cybersecurity

Election Cybersecurity (pp. 88-93)

Vulnerabilities arise because of the complexity of modern information technology (IT) systems and human fallibility in making judgments about what actions are safe or unsafe from a cybersecurity perspective. Moreover, cybersecurity is a never-ending challenge. It is unlikely that permanent protections against cyber threats will be developed in the near future given that cybersecurity threats evolve and that adversaries continually adopt new techniques to compromise systems or overcome defenses.

Election Cybersecurity: Cybersecurity and Vote Tabulation (p. 91)

Because there is no realistic mechanism to fully secure vote casting and tabulation computer systems from cyber threats, one must adopt methods that can assure the accuracy of the election outcome without relying on the hardware and software used to conduct the election. Uniform adoption of auditing best practices does not prevent tampering with the results collected and tabulated by computers. It can allow such tampering to be detected and often corrected.

I would clarify that it can only allow such tampering to be detected if there are paper ballots to audit.

Election Cybersecurity: Factors that Exacerbate Cybersecurity Concerns (p. 92)

Changing threat. Traditionally, the goal has been to secure against election fraud by corrupt candidates or their supporters who may attempt to favor a particular candidate by altering or destroying votes or tampering with the vote tally. The 2016 election vividly illustrated that hostile state actors can also pose a threat. These actors often possess more sophisticated capabilities and can apply greater resources to the conduct of such operations. Moreover, they may have other goals than shifting the outcome for a particular candidate.

Specifically they may be seeking to undermine confidence in the election process and systems, which is a different kind of attack than changing an outcome.  Any kind of visible or detectable interference such as defacing websites, Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), or disclosure of information from within voting systems may achieve the goal of undermining confidence.

Election Cybersecurity: [Consensus] Findings (p. 92-93)

There is no realistic mechanism to fully secure vote casting and tabulation computer systems from cyber threats.

In comparison with other sectors (e.g., banking), the election sector is not following best security practices with regard to cybersecurity.

Even if best practices are applied, systems will not be completely secure.

Foreign state–sponsored attacks present a challenge for even the most responsible and well-resourced jurisdictions. Small, under-resourced jurisdictions are at serious risk.

Better cybersecurity is not a substitute for effective auditing.

I will highlight just one item from the review of End-to-end-verifiability, and I want to make it clear it is a conclusion about voting technology, not about end-to-end verifiability

Complicated and technology-dependent voting systems increase the risk of (and opportunity for) malicious manipulation.

Internet Voting

Internet Voting is covered on pages 101 to 106, including specific examination of Blockchains from pages 103 to 105.  Below are selected extracts only; please read the entire section in the document for the full details.

Internet Voting (pp. 101-106)

Insecure Internet voting is possible now, but the risks currently associated with Internet voting are more significant than the benefits. Secure Internet voting will likely not be feasible in the near future.

Emphasis (bolding) above mine.

Internet Voting: Blockchains (pp. 103-105)

blockchain technology does little to solve the fundamental security issues of elections, and indeed, blockchains introduce additional security vulnerabilities. In particular, if malware on a voter’s device alters a vote before it ever reaches a blockchain, the immutability of the blockchain fails to provide the desired integrity, and the voter may never know of the alteration.

Internet Voting: [Consensus] Findings (p. 106)

The Internet is not currently a suitable medium for the transmission of marked ballots, as Internet-based voting systems in which votes are cast on remote computers or other electronic devices and submitted electronically cannot be made adequately secure today.

The use of blockchains in an election scenario would do little to address the major security requirements of voting, such as voter verifiability. … In the particular case of Internet voting, blockchain methods do not redress the security issues associated with Internet voting.

Internet Voting: Recommendations (p. 106)

5.11 At the present time, the Internet (or any network connected to the Internet) should not be used for the return of marked ballots.35,36 Further, Internet voting should not be used in the future until and unless very robust guarantees of security and verifiability are developed and in place…

35 Inclusive of transmission via email or fax or via phone lines.

36 The Internet is an acceptable medium for the transmission of unmarked ballots to voters so long as voter privacy is maintained and the integrity of the received ballot is protected.

[1] Note: The NASEM defines a consensus report as follows

Consensus Study Report: Consensus Study Reports published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine document the evidence-based consensus on the study’s statement of task by an authoring committee of experts. Reports typically include findings, conclusions, and recommendations based on information gathered by the committee and the committee’s deliberations. Each report has been subjected to a rigorous and independent peer-review process and it represents the position of the National Academies on the statement of task.

[2] The report may be cited as e.g.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi:10.17226/25120

UK 2005 Securing the Vote report and 2007 e-voting trials

Nothing remains of the May 2005 Securing the Vote report on the UK Electoral Commission site.  There used to be a page Securing the vote – detailed proposals for electoral change announced but it is now gone.

The only location where a copy could be found was in a document repository from The Guardian newspaper:

The UK did extensive reporting on the 2007 pilots, the website was but it is no longer online. There is a copy in the Internet Archive.

Although there is no longer an organising page on the Electoral Commission page, some of the reports from 2007 are still available from them, as well as being copied in the Internet Archive.

There are two considerations to highlight from the UK Electronic Voting Summary:

  • New voting methods should be rolled out only once their security and reliability have been fully tested and proven and they can command wide public confidence.
  • The necessary costs for secure and reliable systems must be able to be reasonably met by the public purse.

I will highlight only one item from the Technical Assessments of the e-voting Pilots, item 3.4.4 from Assessment of the pilot process – Quality management:

While there were variations between the different pilots, in all cases the quality and testing arrangements appeared to be inadequate. It is difficult to tell whether this was purely because of lack of time, or whether some of the suppliers were not used to implementing effective quality processes. Significant quality management failings include:
a. Lack of detailed design documentation;
b. Lack of evidence of design or code reviews or other mechanisms for ensuring that the solutions operate correctly and do not include deliberate or accidental security flaws;
c. Lack of evidence of effective configuration management.

This kind of haphazard voting software development has been shockingly common, e.g. for US voting machines as well.

Note: The preceding is extracted from previous blog post Province of Ontario Internet voting.

computer vote counting is a radically different trust model

Computer vote counting is a radically different trust model than a hand-counted election.

Instead of a vote counted in public by known individuals, with observers, you have a third-party for-profit vendor counting the vote in private, with testing by the election authority, but no meaningful observation.

If an elections authority proposed to pay a vendor’s employee to count votes in private, even with a complete background check of the employee, I have the feeling that not many people would go for it.

But in what is essentially the same scenario, except with the employee replaced with a “machine”, people don’t seem to have a problem.

I thought about why this might be the case, and it seems to one primary and one secondary thing.  Primary is the idea that a person has unlimited freedom of action, but a “machine” does not.  Secondary is the confusion that because the vote tabulator itself is in public, somehow the vote count is still “in public”, even though it’s taking place inside the literal black box of the tabulator.

This is I guess a 20th Century collision with 21st Century realities.  If you have an assembly line with a machine that makes pins, if you turn your back, it won’t suddenly decide to secretly make hammers.  Because the vote tabulator looks like some sort of machine, and is described usually as either “electronic” or “machine”, people think it is a single-function device.  But it’s actually a general purpose computer.  Which means that not only does it have a wide range of freedom of action, just like a human being, it can lie to you about what it is doing, just like a human being.

It would be interesting to see a polling station set up with a giant human-sized black box that the ballots go into to be counted, and see how people reacted to that.  Because there really is no difference between that and the computer vote tabulator.  Basically you’ve taken a very limited trust in known people you can watch in public, and changed it to a very extensive trust in unknown vendor employees and in the elections organisation itself operating in private.

If you have a very complicated count and very high expectations of a fast count, then there is some justification in using a vote counting computer, as long as you don’t trust the computer.  You have to audit the paper, not the computer.  You can test the computer as much as you want, it can always lie.  This is exactly what happened in the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal, where the car’s computer could detect when it was being tested and would change its behaviour accordingly.  So when you use a computer to count paper, you have to audit the paper with a manual count (a risk-limiting audit).  Unfortunately as far as I know, no Canadian jurisdiction follows a computer ballot count with a risk-limiting audit.

In any case, Canadian federal and provincial elections are trivial to count.  You literally just sort the ballots into a few piles.  And because the count is simple it is also fast.

The Ontario provincial switch to vote counting computers is wrapped with PR about technology, but it’s actually about staffing.  (The underlying concept is literally called "Proposal for a technology-enabled staffing model for Ontario Provincial Elections".)  Basically it’s hard to get people to staff elections now, and they’re tired by the end of the day which means they are sometimes not in the best shape to do a bunch of precise counting.  There are many many ways to address elections staffing.  For example, you could simply bring in people, e.g. High School students, to do the count at the end of the day.

Addressing a staffing problem by completely changing the counting trust model wouldn’t have been my choice.  And I would assert that the only reason it’s even possible is because people don’t realise the trust model has been radically changed.

In any case, online voting is a much much worse problem that vote counting computers, so this is about all I have to say about the vote tabulators issue.

May 11, 2018  2018 Ontario Provincial Election to use vote counting computers

2018 Ontario Provincial Election to use vote counting computers

The 2018 Ontario Provincial Election taking place on June 7, 2018 will for the first time use vote counting computers province-wide.  This replaces hand-counting of ballots.

The computer vote tabulators use optical scan technology to read hand-marked paper ballots.

This is the least-worst use of computer technology for vote counting as the hand-marked ballots are still available to be counted.  However, these are still computers that have to be programmed, which means there is always the potential for errors or malicious code.

Key Questions

Fundamentally in elections, you don’t trust anyone.  That means you don’t trust the computer vote tabulator either.  Use of computer vote tabulators introduces the following key questions:

  • Will there be a public hand-counted risk-limiting audit following every election, to test the computer count?
  • In the case of a recount, will the ballots be hand-counted under judicial supervision, or will the ballots be run through the computer vote tabulators again?  (It appears that the legislation requires a hand count of the recounts to use a manual hand-count of the paper ballots.)

The new voting procedures were launched with a May 9, 2018 press release (PDF) and accompanying media event.

Elections Ontario is modernizing the voting process and putting the needs of electors first by introducing technology in the polls. Election officials will be using electronic poll books (e -Poll books) and vote tabulators across the province for advance voting. On election day, 50% of the polls will have vote tabulators and e-Poll books … serving 90% of electors.

There was a Canadian Press story by Liam Casey, see e.g. CBC News – Ontario to use electronic voting machines for first time in spring election – May 9, 2018.

The tabulator is a Dominion Voting ImageCast® Precinct computer optical scan vote tabulator.

The history is buried in the post-event reports for two byelections that tested the technology:

It is very clear from the Proposal that the key issue is staffing; the technology is being introduced to address poll staffing issues.

Additional Questions and Considerations

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.

Additional questions raised by the use of computer vote counting equipment:

  • Are there provisions for erasing the digital copies of the ballots stored by the vote counting equipment? (I see no procedures described in law. Organisations often do not consider the security implications of digital copies of scans, see e.g. CBS News – Digital Photocopiers Loaded With Secrets – April 19, 2010.)
  • What are the security implications, in particular the chain-of-custody implications, of sharing computer vote counting equipment with other jurisdictions (e.g. Ontario municipalities)?  Doesn’t the risk of computer code alteration increase with each new jurisdiction that has access to the machine?
  • What are the procedures for transmitting the results of the computer count to Elections Ontario?  Is the count based on printouts from the vote tabulators, the vote tabulator memory cards, or transmission over a network?  What are the security implications of permitting the computer vote counting equipment to be connected to a network in order to transmit the count?  See e.g. Freedom to Tinker – Are voting-machine modems truly divorced from the Internet? – February 22, 2018.
  • What are the procedures for handling the vote tabulator memory cards?

In the March 22, 2018 Guelph Mercury article Ontario’s voting system secure, chief election official says the following statement is made by the Chief Electoral Officer:

“The Ontario government has hired a cybersecurity team to assist any of the ministries with private security — and we’ve been working with that team over the last year, year and a half, and they’ve been working with all of our systems,” he said.

“They’ve been doing penetration testing, vulnerability testing … to ensure that our systems are up-to-date and secure. There have been some slight alterations based on their recommendations, and we are very confident and we take security very, very seriously.

“I want to make sure that all the systems and all the personal information that we have is protected.”

  • Will these tests be made available to the public?  Including both the test procedures and the results?
  • Why doesn’t the Ontario Election Act section 4.5 (3) 3. include independent security and integrity testing for computer vote tabulators, in addition to logic and accuracy testing, as is required for accessible voting equipment in 44.1 (5)?
  • Will the independent security and integrity reports required by 44.1 (5) be made available to the public?
  • Will the machines be made available for independent expert testing, by Canadian academics who are computer security experts?
  • Will the machines be made available for independent expert testing by hackers, e.g. in DefCon Voting Village or at e.g. Canadian Hackfest?
  • As the computer vote tabulators stack ballots in sequence in a bin, in theory it is possible to de-anonymise the votes by carefully tracking voters as they cast ballots.  Is there any provision for randomising the stacked ballots in order to prevent this potential risk?

For more about what it means to change from public hand-counted ballots to ballots counted by a computer from a private for-profit company, see computer vote counting is a radically different trust model.

Governing Legislation

The governing law is the Ontario Election Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. E.6

The relevant sections, modified in 2016 (Election Statute Law Amendment Act, 2016, S.O. 2016, c. 33 – Bill 45) and in force as of January 1, 2017 are:

  • Authority to share equipment and resources – 4.0.3 (1) The Chief Electoral Officer may make equipment, advice, staff, or other resources available to other electoral authorities in Canada.
  • Use of vote counting equipment – 4.5 (1) The Chief Electoral Officer may issue a direction requiring the use of vote counting equipment during an election and modifying the voting process established by this Act to permit the use of the equipment.

Next section blockquoted due to complexity:

Restrictions re equipment

4.5 (3) The following restrictions apply with respect to the use of vote counting equipment:

1. The equipment must not be part of or connected to an electronic network, except that the equipment may be securely connected to a network after the polls close, for the purpose of transmitting information to the Chief Electoral Officer.

2. The equipment must be tested,

i. before the first elector uses the equipment to vote, and
ii. after the last elector uses the equipment to vote.

3. For the purpose of paragraph 2, testing includes, without limitation, logic and accuracy testing.

4. The equipment must not be used in a way that en­ables the choice of an elector to be made known to an election official or scrutineer.

  • Recount conducted manually – 74.1 A recount that is made from the actual ballots shall be conducted manually, even if the original count was done by vote counting equipment. 2010, c. 7, s. 31.

The only section that speaks about voting equipment security appears to apply solely to section 44.1 Accessible voting equipment

Accessible voting equipment, etc.

44.1 (1) At an election, accessible voting equipment and related vote counting equipment shall be made available in accordance with this section and in accordance with the Chief Electoral Officer’s direction under subsection (2). 2010, c. 7, s. 24 (1).


(5) Despite subsection (1), accessible voting equipment and related vote counting equipment shall not be made available unless an entity that the Chief Electoral Officer considers to be an established independent authority on the subject of voting equipment and vote counting equipment has certified that the equipment meets acceptable security and integrity standards. 2010, c. 7, s. 24 (1).

There is no analogous section under 4.5 vote counting equipment.  Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer.

Bill C-76 Elections Modernization Act – changes implicating electronic voting

April 30, 2018 – 42nd Parliament, 1st Session – Bill C-76 Elections Modernization Act

The proposed changes to section 18.1:

  • a specific section 18.1(3) providing that the Chief Electoral Officer “shall develop, obtain or adapt voting technology for use by electors with a disability, and may test the technology for future use in an election”
  • in 18.1(4) the removal of the requirement that using electronic voting (“voting technology”) require the approval of the full Senate and House of Commons

It’s a bit unclear what the difference is between 18.1(2) “alternative voting process” and 18.1(3) “voting technology”.  Can an alternative voting process include new technology?  I have to assume so, particularly given how it is framed in the Chief Electoral Officer’s recommendations.  (There is no definition provided in the bill for “alternative voting process”).

In An Electoral Framework for the 21st Century: Recommendations from the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada Following the 42nd General Election, Table A—Recommendations Discussed in Chapters 1 and 2, A15. 18.1 it says “The distinction between the approval requirement for testing an electronic voting process and any other alternative voting process should be removed”.

Proposed Changes

2014, c. 12, s. 8
15 Sections 18.‍01 and 18.‍1 of the Act are replaced by the following:
International cooperation
18.‍01 The Chief Electoral Officer may provide assistance and cooperation in electoral matters to electoral agencies in other countries or to international organizations.
Voting studies
18.‍1 (1) The Chief Electoral Officer may carry out studies on voting, including studies respecting alternative voting means.
Alternative voting
(2) The Chief Electoral Officer may devise and test an alternative voting process for future use in an election.
Voting technology — electors with a disability
(3) The Chief Electoral Officer shall develop, obtain or adapt voting technology for use by electors with a disability, and may test the technology for future use in an election.
Prior approval
(4) Neither an alternative voting process nor voting technology tested under subsection (2) or (3) may be used in an election without the prior approval of the committees of the Senate and of the House of Commons that normally consider electoral matters.

Existing Text

Clause 15: Existing text of sections 18.‍01 and 18.‍1:
18.‍01 The Chief Electoral Officer may, at the Governor in Council’s request, provide assistance and cooperation in electoral matters to electoral agencies in other countries or to international organizations.
18.‍1 The Chief Electoral Officer may carry out studies on voting, including studies respecting alternative voting processes, and may devise and test an alternative voting process for future use in a general election or a by-election. Such a process may not be used for an official vote without the prior approval of the committees of the Senate and of the House of Commons that normally consider electoral matters or, in the case of an alternative electronic voting process, without the prior approval of the Senate and the House of Commons.

PEI 2016 Plebiscite Voting Integrity Audit Report recommends against federal and provincial Internet voting

Prince Edward Island (PEI) – 2016 Plebiscite on Democratic Renewal – Voting Integrity Audit Report – from the Independent Technical Panel on Voting Integrity (ITPVI) – November 30, 2016

This report is Section 3 Appendix in the 2016 Annual Report of the Chief Electoral Officer of PEI  (PDF), starting on page 35.

Section 11 of the Voting Integrity Audit Report is Considerations for Applying E-Voting Options [Internet voting] in Canadian Public Elections.

The report recommends against Internet voting at the federal and provincial levels, except for absentee voters.

There is a need to maintain an acute level of awareness of the risks to electoral integrity that these new voting methods present. The implications of a breach of the public trust that exists today suggests strongly that internet and telephone voting in Canadian provincial and federal parliamentary elections be considered channels that should be limited to use only by absentee voters for the immediate foreseeable future. …

It is important that leaders in Canadian electoral administration manage public expectations and articulate their concerns about the fact that a perfectly secure and fool-proof electronic voting system does not yet exist.

This recommendation was picked up in the news media, e.g. CBC News PEI – Online voting not ready for federal, provincial election: officials – May 4, 2017.

The group concluded a high-stakes provincial or federal election could attract groups looking to intervene in illicit ways through cyber-attacks, hacking or other means.

The report also does an excellent job of showing the “additional risks and controls associated with online electronic voting” [Internet voting]. These include (highlighting by me):

1. Trusted digital voter identification and authentication is a requisite additional control. An irrefutable digital identity is the first safeguard in ensuring that eligible voters can vote (and can vote only once), and in ensuring that ineligible voters are not permitted to vote. Establishing this identity with a robust ‘shared secret’ is a mandatory prerequisite.

2. The onus is on the buyers, designers, developers, maintainers and operators of any electronic voting system to demonstrate rigor in the specifications, certifications, accreditations, testing and operation of the e-voting system to ensure it is able to mitigate the full range of risks to a reasonable and acceptable level. This has to be achieved to a level of satisfaction regarding both hardware and software risk mitigation. The remaining level of risk needs to be accepted by all stakeholders.

3. With the elimination of the controls that were previously implemented in manually controlled voting processes (refer Appendix ‘G’: Controls C1 – C5), traditional risks are not as fully mitigated as before. In fact, the following risks are difficult to mitigate in any meaningful way:
a. Vote buying / vote secrecy (“I’ll just take a selfie in front of my screen”)
b. Voter coercion (Unless reported, it is impossible to determine if a vote is being coerced)

4. The risk of a voter voting with stolen credentials can only be partially mitigated by effective voters list management and the implementation of a trusted digital voter identification and authentication scheme. Digital voter identification must be robust, but it must also be easily managed so as not to become a barrier to voting because it is overly complex for a voter to use as seldom as once every four years.

5. The additional risks of compromised end-user hardware or software, or a broad regional or national attack on internet infrastructure, remain unmitigated.

The report also identifies the extremely high standard to which we must hold Internet voting, as the transparency provided by conducting paper ballot voting and counting in public are lost when using completely computerized processes.  Highlighting added by me.

The onus is also completely on the online electronic voting system implementer to ensure that controls are established within the e-voting system that meet the legislative requirements of the jurisdiction, and provide an adequate level of transparency for all stakeholders. Simply depositing electronic votes into a ‘black-box’ where they are stored and counted is unlikely to meet stakeholder demands for maintaining a high level of public confidence, unlikely to publicly show that voting risks are continuing to be
managed responsibly, and unlikely to prove to candidates and political parties that the electoral process and controls continue to deliver a trusted and accurate result.

SIDEBAR on turnout:
A demonstration of the reality of Internet voting turnout was the 2016 Prince Edward Island Plebiscite on Democratic Renewal which had 10 days of online voting in addition to two days of in-person voting. Not only was the overall turnout low at 36.5%, but the turnout for ages 18-24 was the lowest of any age range, at 25.47%.

Numbers from McLeod, G. B. (2016, November 9). Interim Report of the Chief Electoral Officer for the 2016 Plebiscite on Democratic Renewal.