When Joining Forces Spells Trouble: Proposed Merger of E-Voting Companies
Last month, Diebold announced that ES&S would purchase its e-voting business for $5 million plus some outstanding revenue. Diebold’s shareholders no doubt rejoiced: while the company’s ATM machines have a strong reputation, its e-voting machines brought the company only grief. Diebold even changed its e-voting unit’s name to Premier to protect the company’s otherwise strong brand name.
This merger, however, is bad news for voters. It would entrust 3/4s of e-voting machines into the hands of a company whose machines rival Diebold’s for inaccuracy and insecurity. Consider this recent example. In 2008, ES&S machines allocated votes cast in one race to a different race that was not even on the ballot. As a result, the wrong candidate won a state House nomination race. Given the consolidation of the e-voting market, we can have little hope that future machines will be more secure. Ed Felten explains that “[t]he odds of one major e-voting company breaking from the pack and embracing up-to-date security engineering are now even slimmer than before.” Because breaking into the e-voting business is expensive due to high accreditation costs, ES&S may face limp competition in bids for upcoming contracts. Voting administrators thus may be unable to obtain important terms crucial to transparency and accountability, such as the placement of source code in escrow.
Although voters should lament this development, all isn’t lost. As Joe Hall notes, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen has provided wise advice to the Election Assistance Commission with regard to the integrity of e-voting systems. Bowen urges that the EAC require greater disclosure of vulnerabilities, the adoption of procedures that jurisdictions can follow to collect and report data about incidents they experience with their voting systems, and the systematic collection of data from election officials about how voting systems perform during general elections. This recalls the important work of Heather Gerken in her book The Democracy Index: Why Our Election System is Failing and How to Fix It. The EAC would be wise to adopt these proposals, especially in light of the upcoming merger.