Johns Hopkins-led center will study voting technologies

August 15, 2005

A federally funded center dedicated to improving the reliability and trustworthiness of voting technology, drawing on experts in computer science, public policy and human behavior, will be based at The Johns Hopkins University, the National Science Foundation announced Monday. Researchers from five other institutions nationwide will participate in the project, which is aimed at addressing public concerns about the growing use of electronic voting machines in local, state and national elections.

The NSF said it would provide $7.5 million over five years to launch the new endeavor called ACCURATE, short for A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable, and Transparent Elections. Avi Rubin, a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins and technical director of the university's Information Security Institute, will direct the center.

Rubin has received international attention in recent years for identifying risks associated with computer-based voting technology that has been put into use with minimal scrutiny by independent security experts. He has testified before state and federal lawmakers and election supervisors regarding potential security flaws in these machines.

The center's work will be important because of dramatic changes taking place in the way in which people cast ballots. Fueled by significant funding from the Help America Vote Act of 2002, municipal and county governments across the nation are in the midst of the largest conversion of U.S. voting technology in a century. With this move, the percentage of U.S. voters casting ballots on electronic voting machines is expected to rise from 13 percent in 2000 to a much higher percentage in 2008. This is occurring despite persistent questions from leading security experts, legal scholars and computer scientists about the integrity and trustworthiness of e-voting. In some states, technology glitches in recent elections have led to calls for mandatory paper trails and stricter standards for electronic systems.

"Our country moved to electronic voting in public elections before the technology was ready," Rubin said. "This center will develop the fundamental science necessary for secure, accessible, trustworthy and transparent voting."

The NSF grant is expected to provide approximately $1.2 million to Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins to fund Rubin's research into voting technology and for administration of the new center. Also participating in ACCURATE will be prominent researchers from Rice University; Stanford University; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Iowa and SRI International.

Some members of the multidisciplinary team will study electronic voting hardware and programming, including the cryptography used to ensure voters' selections remain private and the methods used to verify that computers accurately compile all legitimate votes. These researchers will also look for ways to guard against a variety of election tampering threats.

"The basic question is how can we employ computer systems as trustworthy election systems when we know computers are not totally reliable, totally secure or bug-free," said Dan Wallach, associate professor of computer science at Rice, who will serve as associate director of ACCURATE. "In voting, this is complicated by the fact that potential adversaries include everyone from the voting system designers, elections officials and voters to political operatives, hackers and foreign agents."

Other team members will focus on legal and public policy issues that have received little attention in the rapid transition to electronic voting, as well as human behavior questions tied to the abrupt change in the way people are being required to cast their ballots. A key issue is how confident people will feel that their electronic vote was recorded accurately.

The multi-disciplinary team's findings will be made public. The findings will be used to help develop technical standards and proposals for new e-voting systems that are easy to use and tamper-evident.

"There is no reason why computers cannot be used to improve election systems, but it has to be done right," center director Rubin said. "Our research will focus on leveraging the best properties of different technologies to design the strongest overall system. ACCURATE has a unique opportunity to produce ground-breaking scientific research while at the same time helping to protect our democracy."
Related links:
Avi Rubin's Web Page:
Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins:
Johns Hopkins Department of Computer Science:

Johns Hopkins University

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