Where's the Candle and Where's my Crayon?

Avi Rubin provided a detailed account of his experience as an elections judge in the Maryland primary last Tuesday. His polling place used systems provided by Diebold, and although they managed to keep the precinct open through the entire election, it wasn't due to high reliability or ease of use of the voting systems.

He provides the whole account in his blog.

Thanks to Dr. Rubin's blog, I can also note that a reasearch group at Princeton has had a chance to examine the Diebold "AccuVote" system in detail. Their abstract reads in part:

"Analysis of the machine, in light of real election procedures, shows that it is vulnerable to extremely serious attacks. For example, an attacker who gets physical access to a machine or its removable memory card for as little as one minute could install malicious code; malicious code on a machine could steal votes undetectably, modifying all records, logs, and counters to be consistent with the fraudulent vote count it creates. An attacker could also create malicious code that spreads automatically and silently from machine to machine during normal election activities — a voting-machine virus. We have constructed working demonstrations of these attacks in our lab."

Hardly something you could call "AccuVote".

I renew my earlier call for it to be possible for the polling place itself to be operable with no technology more advanced than a candle and a crayon. I'll allow an umbrella or tent if its raining, and a lantern after dark. Sure, a climate controlled comfortable room with working lights, safe parking, and easy access for all voters is the goal, but the voting itself should not depend on any utility, and the whole process must be transparent and verifiable to any observer.

A paper ballot with marks made directly by the voter is transparent and verifiable by each voter. When dropped in a locked and numbered box, it is easy to rest assured that those boxes of votes can be observed in their progress to a central counting facility. An observer (from any party or even interested citizens or the press) could easily understand that the physical ballots are controlled and tracked from the polling places to the counting facility. And the whole process is subject to audit, review, and recount all without needing to trust anything that cannot be seen and understood by people of ordinary intelligence and education.


Cell Phone Hysterics

Today, our Governor of the great state of California, is set to take another step in the direction of pandering in an election year. He is taking time to make a public show of signing into law a ban on the use of cell phones while driving.

I'll certainly be the first to claim that driving while distracted is not a good thing.

However, I wonder where the data is to support the notion that cell phones are a significant source of real distraction and damage on our highways.

It seems like everyone has one, and a lot of people are talking on them a lot. And, especially in public places like waiting rooms and restaurants (let alone theaters or theatres), other people's phones are certainly capable of providing a lot of nuisance noise. But if using a cell phone in a car was really that bad, where are the dead bodies?  Or at least where is all the crumpled steel?

The Cato Institute back in May of 2001 described a study by the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center that analyzed over 32,000 traffic accidents caused by distracted drivers. They looked at the sources of the distraction that appeared to have caused the accidents. Their list of causes is intriguing. The number one factor seems to have been "outside objects, persons, or events" at 29.4%, and "using or dialing on a cell phone" fell at second to last at 1.5% of surveyed accidents.

That puts the cell phone ahead only of fiddling with a cigarette, but well behind the CD and radio, other people in the car, loose objects, adjusting the A/C, and eating.

The Cato article also raises questions about the practicality of enforcing a ban in general terms. I haven't read the bill, so I don't know if it makes just holding your hand to your head a valid reason for a traffic stop...

The bill does permit headsets (whether wired or wireless), but the promoters have promised to come back for more legislation to ban headsets too. But before they get around to that I suppose some future model that fits the entire phone into a wearable object the size of a current bluetooth headset would become a source of revenue for lawyers as it is argued what really constitues a "headset".

It just isn't practical to legislate that people not be idiots, and distracting law enforcement with anti-idiocy laws takes them away from investigating real crimes.