NSF center aims to bolster security and trust in e-voting

August 15, 2005

HOUSTON, Aug. 15, 2005 -- The National Science Foundation today awarded a five-year, $7.5 million grant to an interdisciplinary team from Rice University and five other top research institutions tasked with evaluating flaws in current e-voting technology and with developing both technical standards and new e-voting systems that are easy to use and virtually impossible to tamper with.

"It's no exaggeration to say that voting systems are one of the pillars of democracy," said e-voting expert Dan Wallach, associate professor of computer science at Rice. "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?' 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."

Dubbed "ACCURATE" -- shorthand for A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable and Transparent Elections -- the NSF-funded e-voting research center is based at Johns Hopkins University and includes researchers from the University of California, Berkeley; Stanford University; the University of Iowa and SRI International.

Municipal and county governments across the nation are in the midst of the largest conversion of U.S. voting technology in a century. Fueled by $3.9 billion in federal assistance from the Help America Vote Act of 2002, the conversion allowed about 29 percent of U.S. voters to cast ballots on electronic voting machines in 2004. Despite persistent questions from leading security experts, legal scholars and computer scientists about the integrity and trustworthiness of e-voting technology, many more U.S. counties and municipalities are weighing purchasing decisions for e-voting technology that could be in place by 2008.

"The ACCURATE center brings together computer scientists, lawyers, policy experts and human factors specialists to tackle the multifaceted problem of integrating technology into the voting process," said ACCURATE Director Avi Rubin, professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University. "This multidisciplinary effort will involve input from policy-makers, vendors, elections officials and technologists."

Rice will receive about $1.5 million in ACCURATE funding for two research programs, one in computer security and the other in human factors research, which looks at the inherent limitations and abilities of people to design, use and operate complex technology.

Wallach, ACCURATE associate director, will study how to build more reliable software and hardware for voting systems. His research group will compare and test a range of software technologies that voting systems designers might employ to help identify software bugs and security flaws, both during development as well as during the post-production certification process. In addition, Wallach's group will consider hardware technologies that might make voting systems more resistant to tampering.

Rice human factors expert Michael Byrne, assistant professor of psychology, will explore the efficiency and effectiveness of traditional paper ballots, punchcards, lever voting machines and e-voting machines. Byrne's group will compare several measures for the various systems, including time taken to vote, actual error rates in voting, and whether voters felt confident that their votes were recorded correctly. The human factors researchers will both help guide the ACCURATE research teams working to develop superior voting systems and measure the new designs.

"Voting is a particularly challenging human factors problem because voting systems must be usable by citizens regardless of age, disability, education, socioeconomic status, history of computer use, literacy level, native language and the like," Byrne said. "Only a handful of studies have been conducted on this, and usability and accessibility standards and guidelines are nonexistent."

A key aim of the center is to transfer knowledge gained through its multidisciplinary research into the public polling place. As such, the center hopes to reach out to voting machine makers and pass along findings about how to improve the design and security of proprietary voting systems. The center will also work with the Open Voting Consortium, a nonprofit group dedicated to applying open-source development techniques in e-voting.
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Rice University

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