PRIVACY ISSUES IN AN ELECTRONIC VOTING
Arthur M. Keller1
, David Mertz2
, Joseph Lorenzo Hall
, and Arnold Urken4
UC Santa Cruz and Open Voting Consortium, firstname.lastname@example.org; 2
Gnosis Software, Inc.,
UC Berkeley, School of Information Management and Systems,
Stevens Institute of Technology, email@example.com
Abstract: The Open Voting Consortium has a developed a prototype voting system that
includes an open source, PC-based voting machine that prints an accessible,
voter-verified paper ballot along with an electronic audit trail. This system was
designed for reliability, security, privacy, accessibility and auditability. This
paper describes some of the privacy considerations for the system.
Key words: Electronic voting; privacy; secret ballot; Open Voting Consortium; Electronic
Ballot Printer; paper ballot; barcodes; accessible; reading impaired interface;
multiple languages; accessible voter-verified paper ballot.
1. INTRODUCTION – WHY A SECRET BALLOT?
The requirements for secrecy in elections depend upon the values and
goals of the political culture where voting takes place. Gradations of partial
and complete privacy can be found in different cultural settings. For
instance, in some cantons in Switzerland, voters traditionally communicate
their choices orally in front of a panel of election officials.
1 In contrast, in
most modern polities, the ideal of complete privacy is institutionalized by
relying on anonymous balloting.
The use of secret balloting in elections—where a ballot’s contents are
disconnected from the identity of the voter—can be traced back to the
earliest use of ballots themselves. The public policy rationales for instituting
anonymous balloting are typically to minimize bribery and intimidation of
1 Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy (Twentieth Anniversary Edition, University of
California Press, 2004). 2 Alvin Rabushka and Kenneth Shepsle, POLITICS IN PLURAL SOCIETIES: A THEORY OF
DEMOCRATIC INSTABILITY (1972).
2 Chapter #
the voter. For example, in Athens, Greece during the sixth century B.C.E.,
Athenians voted by raising their hands “except on the question of exiling
someone considered dangerous to the state, in which case a secret vote was
taken on clay ballots.”
3 In this case, presumably it was deemed necessary to
vote via secret ballot to avoid bodily harm to the voter.
Secret ballots, although not always required, have been in use in America
since colonial times.
4 The Australian ballot,
5 designed to be uniform in
appearance because it is printed and distributed by the government, was
adopted throughout most of the U.S. in the late 1800’s. Today,
approximately one hundred years after most states in the U.S. passed legal
provisions for anonymous balloting, a strong sense of voter privacy has
emerged as a third rationale. All fifty states have provisions in their
constitutions for either election by “secret ballot” or elections in which
“secrecy shall be preserved,” which has been interpreted by the courts as an
implied requirement for secret balloting.
6 West Virginia does not require a
secret ballot and leaves that to the discretion of the voter.7 Fourteen states’
Spencer Albrecht, THE AMERICAN BALLOT (1942) at 9. 4 In 1682, the
Province of Pennsylvania in its Frame of the Government required “THAT
the elections of Members or Representatives of the People, to serve in the Provincial
Council and General Assembly … shall be resolved and determined by ballot.” (Votes
and Proceedings of the House of Representatives of the Province of Pennsylvania. Printed
and sold by B. Franklin and D. Hall, at The New Printing Office, near the Market.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania MDCCLII, at xxxi.) In 1782, the legislature of the
Colony/State of New Jersey tried to intimidate Tories by requiring viva voce voting. (At
that time, about half of New Jersey voted with ballots and the other half viva voce.) They
rescinded this in their next session. (Richard P. McCormick, THE HISTORY OF VOTING IN
NEW JERSEY 74 (1953). In 1796, the State of New Jersey required federal elections to be
by ballot and extended that to state elections the following year. (Id. at 106.) In the 1853
pamphlet SECRET SUFFRAGE, Edward L. Pierce recounted Massachusetts’ battle to
make the secret ballot truly secret. The Massachusetts Constitution in 1820 required
elections for representatives to have “written” votes. In 1839, the legislature attacked the
secrecy of the written ballot by requiring the ballot to be presented for deposit in the ballot
box open and unfolded. In 1851, the legislature passed the “Act for the better security of
the Ballot,” which provided that the ballots are to be deposited in the ballot box in sealed
envelopes of uniform size and appearance furnished by the secretary of the Commonwealth
(State of Massachusetts). The battle waged until a provision in the State Constitution made
the secret ballot mandatory. (Edward L. Pierce, SECRET SUFFRAGE 7 (1853)(published by
Ballot Society, No. 140 Strand, London, England). 5 The more general
“Australian ballot” is a term used for anonymous balloting using
non-partisan ballots distributed by the government. See Albright 1942 at 26. “The very
notion of exercising coercion and improper influence absolutely died out of the country.”
See supra note 3, at 24, quoting Francis S. Dutton of South Australia in J. H. Wigmore’s
AUSTRALIAN BALLOT SYSTEM (2nd ed., Boston, 1889) at 15-23. 6 For
example, The Delaware Supreme Court recognized that the Delaware’s
language amounts to an “implied constitutional requirement of a secret ballot.” Brennan v.
34 Del. Ch. 380 at 402. (1954). 7 See W. Va. Const. Art. IV, §2 8 “In
all elections by the people, the mode of voting shall be by ballot; but
the voter shall be
left free to vote by either open, sealed or secret ballot, as he may elect.” (W. VA. CONST.
#. Privacy Issues in an Electronic Voting Machine 3
constitutions do not list “secret” balloting or “secrecy” of elections and/or
ballots explicitly. These states have either state laws (election code) or case
law (decided legal cases in that state) that mandate secret balloting or
interpret the phrase “election shall be by ballot” to mean a “secret ballot.”
These cultural values and practices contribute to the sets of user
requirements that define the expectations of voters in computer-mediated
9 and determine alternative sets of specifications that can be
considered in developing open source software systems for elections. The
Open Voting Consortium (OVC)10 has developed a model election system
that aims as one of its goals to meet these requirements. This paper describes
how the OVC model ensures ballot privacy.
The OVC has developed its model for an electronic voting system largely
in response to reliability, usability, security, trustworthiness, and
accessibility concerns about other voting systems. Privacy was kept in mind
throughout the process of designing this system. Section 2 of this paper
discusses the requirements for a secret ballot in more detail. Section 3
considers how secrecy could be compromised in some systems. Section 4
describes the architecture of the polling place components of the OVC
system. Section 5 describes how the OVC handles privacy concerns. While
this paper focuses mostly on privacy issues for U.S.-based elections, and
how they are addressed in the OVC system, many of the issues raised are
relevant elsewhere as well.
2. SECRET BALLOT REQUIREMENTS
The public policy goals of secret balloting
— to protect the privacy
of the elector and minimize undue intimidation and influence — are
supported by federal election laws and regulations. The Help America Vote
Act of 200212
codifies this policy as “anonymity” and “independence” of all
voters, and “privacy” and “confidentiality” of ballots. It requires that the
ART. IV, § 2 (2003). 9 Arthur B, Urken, Voting in A Computer-Networked Environment, in THE INFORMATION
WEB: ETHICAL AND SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS OF COMPUTER NETWORKING (Carol Gould, ed.,
The Open Voting Consortium (OVC) is a non-profit organization dedicated to the
development, maintenance, and delivery of open voting systems for use in public
See http://www.openvotingconsortium.org/. 11 There are two aspects to
anonymous voting. The first is ballot privacy—the ability for
someone to vote without having to disclose his or her vote to the public. The second is
secrecy—someone should not be able to prove that they voted one way or another. The
desire for the latter is rooted in eliminating intimidation while the former is to curb vote
The history of these two concepts is beyond the scope of this paper. 12
The Help America Vote Act of 2002, 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 15301 – 15545 (West,
4 Chapter #
Federal Election Commission create standards that “[preserve] the privacy of
the voter and the confidentiality of the ballot.”
The Federal Election Commission has issued a set of Voting System
Standards (VSS)14 that serve as a model of functional requirements that
elections systems must meet before they can be certified for use in an
election. The VSS state explicitly:
To facilitate casting a ballot, all systems shall:
[…] Protect the secrecy of the vote such that the system cannot reveal any
information about how a particular voter voted, except as otherwise
required by individual State law;
All systems shall provide voting booths [that shall] provide privacy for
the voter, and be designed in such a way as to prevent observation of the
ballot by any person other than the voter;
as well as a lengthy list of specific requirements that Direct Recording
Electronic voting systems must meet.
17 The basic, high-level requirement not
to expose any information about how an individual voted is required of all
voting systems before certification and is the most important. The second
requirement listed above is a corollary.
It is not sufficient for electronic voting systems merely to anonymize the
voting process from the perspective of the voting machine. Every time a
ballot is cast, the voting system adds an entry to one or more software or
firmware logs that consists of a timestamp and an indication that a ballot was
cast. If the timestamp log is combined with the contents of the ballot, this
information becomes much more sensitive. For example, it can be combined
with information about the order in which voters voted to compromise the
confidentiality of the ballot. Such information can be collected at the polling
place using overt or covert surveillance equipment—such as cell phone
cameras or security cameras common at public schools. As described
below, system information collected by the voting system should be kept
separated from the content of cast ballots and used in conjunction only by
authorized, informed election officials.
13 Id., § 301(a)(1)(C). (Also see §§ 242(a)(2)(B), 245(a)(2)(C), 261(b)(1), 271(b)(1), 281
(b)(1), 301(a)(3)(A)). 14 Federal Election Commission, Voting System Standards, Vols. 1 & 2 (2002), available at
http://www.fec.gov/pages/vsfinal (Microsoft Word .doc format) or
(Adobe PDF format) 15 Id. at Vol. 1, §184.108.40.206(b). 16 Id. at Vol. 1,
§220.127.116.11. 17 Id. at Vol. 1, §18.104.22.168.2(a)-(e) and §4.5.
#. Privacy Issues in an Electronic Voting Machine 5
3. HOW SECRECY COULD BE COMPROMISED
3.1 A voter’s secret identity
When a voter enters a polling place, she enters with a valuable secret: her
identity. A secret ballot is not really “secret” in a general sense — it is
possible, and even required, for certain recipients to disclose ballots. A
secret ballot is “secret” only in the sense that it is blind as to the identity of
the voter who cast it. The anonymity of ballots must apply even to most
statistical properties of the voters who cast them; a notable exception,
however, is in the disclosure of the geographic distribution of voters who
vote certain ways in the aggregate. We all know there are “Republican
precincts” and “Democratic precincts,” and anyone can easily and legally
find out which are which.
Complicating matters is the fact that a voter’s secret, her identity, must be
disclosed at a certain stage in the voting process. To be allowed to vote at
all, a voter must authenticate her right to vote using her identity, if only by a
declaration of purported identity to elections workers. Depending on
jurisdiction, different standards of identity authentication apply—some
require identification cards and/or revelation of personal information outside
the public domain—but in all cases, identity acts as a kind of key for entry to
voting. However, legally this key must be removed from all subsequent
communication steps in the voting process.
The act of voting, and the acts of aggregating those votes at subsequently
higher levels (called “canvassing” in voting parlance) can be thought of as
involving a series of information channels. At a first step, a voter is given a
token to allow her vote to pass through later stages; depending on the system
model, this token may be a pre-printed ballot form, a PIN-style code, a
temporary ballot-type marker, an electronic smart card, or at a minimum
simply permission to proceed. Although the OVC has not yet settled on a
particular token, we will focus on smart cards in this paper, because they
have the most serious implications for privacy. Outside the US, tokens such
as hand stamps in indelible ink are also used, particularly to preclude
duplicate votes being cast.
Once at a voting station, a voter must perform some voting actions using
either pen-and-paper, a mechanical device like a lever machine or a punch
card guide, or an electronic interface, such as a touchscreen or headphones-
with-keypad. After performing the required voting actions, some sort of
record of the voter’s selections is created, either on paper, in the state of
gears, on electronic/magnetic storage media, or using some combination of
those. That record of selections becomes the “cast ballot.” Under the Open
Voting Consortium system, the paper ballot produced at a voting station
undergoes final voter inspection before being cast into a physical ballot box.
6 Chapter #
After votes are cast, they are canvassed at several levels: first by precinct;
then by county, district, or city; then perhaps statewide. At each level of
canvassing, either the literal initial vote records or some representation or
aggregation of them must be transmitted.
3.2 Understanding covert channels
At every stage of information transmission, from voter entry, through
vote casting, through canvassing, a voter’s identity must remain hidden. It is
relatively simple to describe the overt communication channels in terms of
the information that actually should be transmitted at each stage. But within
the actual transmission mechanism it is possible that a covert channel also
transmits improper identity information.
Covert channels in a voting system can take a number of forms. Some
covert channels require the cooperation of collaborators, such as voters
themselves or poll workers. Other covert channels can result from
(accidental) poor design in the communication channels; while others can be
created by malicious code that takes advantage of incomplete channel
specification. A final type of covert channel is what we might call a
“sideband attack”—that is, there may be methods of transmitting improper
information that are not encoded directly in the overt channel, but result
indirectly from particular implementations.
For illustration, let us briefly suggest examples of several types of covert
channels. One rather straightforward attack on voter ballot anonymity is
repeatedly missed by almost every new developer approaching design from a
databases-and-log-files background. If the voting channels contain
information about the times when particular ballots are cast and/or the
sequence of ballots, this information can be correlated with an under-
protected record of the sequence of times when voters enter a polling place.
We sometimes call this a “covert videotape” attack. In part, this attack uses a
sideband: the covert videotaping of voters as they enter; but it also relies on
a design flaw in which ballots themselves are timestamped, perhaps as a
means to aid debugging.
A pure sideband attack might use Tempest
18 equipment to monitor
electro-magnetic emissions of electronic voting stations. In principle, it
might be possible for an attacker to sit across the street from a polling place
with a van full of electronics, watch each voter enter, then detect each vote
she selects on a touchscreen voting station.
Cooperative attacks require the voter or poll worker to do something
special to disclose identity. As with other attacks, these covert channels need
not rely on electronics and computers. For example, a malicious poll worker
might mark a pre-printed blank paper ballot using ultraviolet ink before
18 See http://www.cryptome.org/nsa-tempest.htm (Last visited February 13, 2005)
#. Privacy Issues in an Electronic Voting Machine 7
handing it to a targeted voter. The covert channel is revealed only with an
UV lamp, something voters are unlikely to carry to inspect their ballots. A
voter herself might cooperate in a covert channel in order to facilitate vote
buying or under threat of vote coercion. One such covert channel is to
instruct a bought or coerced voter to cast “marked votes” to prove she cast
the votes desired by her collaborator. Unique write-in names and unusual
patterns in ranked preference or judicial confirmations are ways to “mark” a
ballot as belonging to a particular voter.
3.3 Links between registration data and ballots
Since a voter must identify herself when signing in at the polling place,
there is the potential for her identity to be tied to her vote. The token given
to the voter to allow her to vote may contain her identity. For example, the
voter’s registration number could be entered into the smart-card writer and
then encoded on the smart card that is given to the voter to enable use of a
Direct Recording Electronic voting machine. When the voter registration list
is given to the polling place on paper, this channel appears less of an issue.
However, if the voter registration list is handled electronically, then the
smart card could easily contain the voter’s identity. Diebold’s stated intent
makes this issue a potentially serious privacy risk.
Diebold already has purchased Data Information Management Systems,
one of two firms that have a dominant role in managing voter-registration
lists in California and other states. “The long-term goal here is to introduce
a seamless voting solution, all the way from voter registration to (vote)
tabulation,” said Tom Swidarski, Diebold senior vice president for strategic
4. OVC SYSTEM OVERVIEW
The Open Voting Consortium is developing a PC-based open source
voting system based on an accessible voter-verified paper ballot. We mostly
describe the components of the system that operate in the polling place.
addition, we briefly discuss the components at the county canvassing site.
19 Ian Hoffman, With e-voting, Diebold treads where IBM wouldn’t, OAKLAND TRIB., May 30,
2004, available at
20 See Arthur M. Keller, et al., A PC-Based Open Source Voting Machine
with an Accessible
Voter-Verifiable Paper Ballot, 2005 USENIX ANNUAL TECHNICAL CONFERENCE,
FREENIX/OPEN SOURCE TRACK, April 10-15, 2005, pp. 163–174, and available at
8 Chapter #
4.1 Voter sign-in station
The Voter Sign-In Station is used by the poll worker when the voter signs
in and involves giving the voter a “token.” It is a requirement that each voter
cast only one vote and that the vote cast be of the right precinct and party for
the voter. The “token” authorizes the voter to cast a ballot using one of these
• Pre-printed ballot stock
o Option for scanning ballot type by Electronic Voting Machine
o Poll worker activation
• Per-voter PIN (including party/precinct identifier)
• Per-party/precinct token
• Smart cards
The token is then used by the Electronic Voting Machine or an Electronic
Voting Machine with a Reading Impaired Interface to ensure that each voter
votes only once and only using the correct ballot type.
If the voter spoils a ballot, the ballot is marked spoiled and kept for
reconciliation at the Ballot Reconciliation Station, and the voter is given a
new token for voting.
4.2 Electronic voting machine
The Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) includes a touch-screen interface
for the voter to view the available choices for each contest and select among
them. The EVM then prints a paper ballot, which the voter verifies (possibly
using the Ballot Verification Station) and places in the ballot box. The EVM
is activated by a token, such as a smart card, obtained at the sign-in station.
The EVM maintains an electronic ballot image as an audit trail and to
reconcile with the paper ballots at the Ballot Reconciliation Station.
4.3 Electronic voting machine with reading impaired interface
The Electronic Voting Machine with Reading Impaired Interface is a PC
similar to the Electronic Voting Machine described above which provides
auditory output of the ballot choices and selections made and also supports
additional modes of making selections suitable for the blind or reading
impaired. Whether these features are integrated into a common voting
machine with all functionality, or whether there is a separate configuration
for the disabled, is an open question. For example, additional modes of input
may be useful for those who can read printed materials, but have physical
limitations. The idea is to have a universal design that accommodates all
#. Privacy Issues in an Electronic Voting Machine 9
4.4 Ballot verification station
The Ballot Verification Station reads the ballot produced by the
Electronic Voting Machine or the Electronic Voting Machine with Reading
Impaired Interface and speaks (auditorily) the selections on the voter’s
ballot. A count is kept of usage, including counts of consecutive usage for
the same ballot, but no permanent record is kept of which ballots are
The Ballot Verification Station could also have a screen for displaying
the selections. Such an option, enabled by the voter upon her request, would
enable a voter who can read to verify that her ballot will be read correctly for
4.5 Ballot reconciliation station
The Ballot Reconciliation Station reads the paper ballots, both cast and
spoiled, and reconciles them against the Electronic Ballot Images from the
Electronic Voting Machine or the Electronic Voting Machine with Reading
4.6 Paper ballot
The paper ballot is printed by the Electronic Voting Machine or the
Electronic Voting Machine with Reading Impaired Interface. It must be
“cast” in order to be tallied during canvassing, testing, or a manual recount.
The paper ballot is intended to be easily read by the voter so that the voter
may verify that his or her choices have been properly marked. It also
contains security markings and a bar code. The bar code encodes the voter’s
choices, as expressed in the human readable portion of the ballot. The human
readable text should be in an OCR-friendly font so it is computer-readable as
well. Voters may use the Ballot Verification Station to verify that the bar
code accurately reflects their choices. The Ballot Verification Station not
only assists sight-impaired and reading-impaired voters in verifying their
ballots, but will also give all voters the assurance that the bar-code on the
ballot properly mirrors their choices, as represented in the human-readable
text on the ballot.
4.7 Privacy folder
The paper ballot contains the voter’s choices in two forms: a form that
can be read by people and a bar code that expresses those choices in a
10 Chapter #
Poll workers may come in contact with the ballot should they be asked to
assist a voter or to cast the ballot into the ballot box. In order to protect voter
privacy it is desirable to minimize the chance that a voting place worker
might observe the voter’s ballot choices. A privacy folder is just a standard
file folder with an edge trimmed back so that it reveals only the bar code part
of a ballot. The voter is expected to take his/her ballot from the printer of the
Electronic Voting Machine or the Electronic Voting Machine with Reading
Impaired Interface and place it into a privacy folder before leaving the
The privacy folder is designed so that the voter may place the ballot, still
in its folder, against the scanning station of the Ballot Verification Station to
hear the choices on the voter’s ballot spoken.
When handed the ballot by the voter, the poll worker casts the ballot
by turning the privacy folder so the ballot is face down, and then sliding the
paper ballot into the ballot box.
4.8 Ballot box
The ballot box is a physically secure container, into which voters have
their paper ballots placed, in order to “cast” their votes. The mechanical
aspects of the ballot box will vary among jurisdictions, depending on local
laws and customs. Optionally, a perforated tab is removed from the ballot
before placing the ballot into the ballot box, and the tab is handed to the
voter. The removal of the tab ensures that the ballot cannot be marked
4.9 Box for spoiled ballots
When a voter spoils a ballot, perhaps because the ballot does not
accurately reflect her preferences, the ballot is marked spoiled and placed in
a box for spoiled ballots for later reconciliation.
5. OVC BALANCES SECURITY, RELIABILITY AND
This section discusses how the Open Voting Consortium is balancing
security, reliability and privacy in its electronic voting system.
5.1 Free and open source software
Opening the source code to a voting system — all stages of it, not only
the voting station—is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for
#. Privacy Issues in an Electronic Voting Machine 11
ensuring trustworthiness, including the absence of trapdoors and covert
channels. For practical purposes, no system that functions as a black box, in
which the implementing source code is maintained as a trade secret, can be
known to lack covert channels. Any channel with non-optimal utilization
includes non-utilized content that is potentially malicious rather than merely
accidental — behavior analysis, in principle, cannot distinguish the two.
Of course, free and open source code is not sufficient to prevent covert
channels. Sideband channels, in particular, are never exposed by direct
examination of source code in isolation; it is necessary to perform additional
threat modeling. But even direct encoding of extra information within an
overt channel can sometimes be masked by subtle programming tricks. More
eyes always reduce the risk of tricks hidden in code. Parallel implementation
to open specifications, and message canonicalization also helps restrict
channels to overt content.
A frequent criticism of free and open source software is that, while the
code is available for inspection, no coordinated inspection is actually
21 The absence of Non-Disclosure Agreements and restrictive
intellectual property agreements makes it possible for a large body of open
source developers to inspect the code. Furthermore, in the realm of elections
systems, which are mission-critical for a democratic government, open
source software could benefit from a specific group of developers who are
tasked with recognizing and repairing vulnerabilities. This is a common need
in many open source software projects, and in this sense, it might be an
appropriate role for a non-profit institution that has delivered such services
to other important projects like GNU/Linux, BIND, the Mozilla tool suite
and the Apache web server.
5.2 Privacy in the voting token (e.g., smart card)
The token given to the voter to enable her to use the electronic voting
machine might contain information that could compromise her anonymity.
Indeed, it is not possible to demonstrate the absence of covert channels
through black box testing. Thus, analysis of the software is important to
show how the data for the smart card is assembled. Above, we considered
the benefits of open source software in that numerous people, both inside
and outside the process, have the ability to inspect and test the software to
reduce the likelihood of covert channels. The hardware that enables smart-
card use also includes an interface used by the poll worker (the Voter Sign-
In Station). The nature of that interface limits the type of information that
can be encoded. Encoding the time of day in the smart card, either
intentionally or as a side effect of the process of writing files to the smart
21 Fred Cohen, Is Open Source More or Less Secure? MANAGING NETWORK SECURITY, (July
12 Chapter #
card, is a potential avenue for attack. However, the electronic voting
machine receiving the smart card knows the time as well, so the smart card
is not needed to convey this information.
We propose to encode in the voting token the ballot type and (particularly
for multiple precincts at the same polling place) the precinct. The smart card
should also be digitally signed by the smart card enabling hardware, so as to
help reduce forgeries.
5.3 Printed ballot
The printed ballot contains a human readable version of the voter’s
selections. After all, that is how it is a voter-verifiable paper ballot.
However, the secrecy of the voter’s selections is at risk while the voter
carries the paper ballot from the electronic voting machine, optionally to the
ballot validation station, and on to the poll worker to cast her ballot.
Our approach is to use a privacy folder to contain the ballot. When the
voter signs in, she receives the token plus an empty privacy folder. When the
EVM prints the ballot, the voter takes the ballot and places it in the privacy
folder, so that only the barcode shows. The barcode can be scanned by the
Ballot Validation Station without exposing the human readable portion of
the ballot. When the privacy folder containing the ballot is given to the poll
worker to be cast, the poll worker turns the privacy folder so the ballot is
face down and then slides the ballot out of the privacy folder and into the
official ballot box. The poll worker thus does not see the text of the ballot,
with the possible exception of precinct and (for primaries) party identifiers
that may be printed in the margin.
The privacy folder is an ordinary manila folder trimmed along the long
edge so that the barcode sticks out.
5.4 Reading impaired interface
The reading impaired interface is used both by voters who cannot read
and by voters who cannot see. Having a segregated electronic voting
machine used only by the reading and visually impaired can compromise
privacy. It is therefore desirable for the electronic voting machines with the
reading impaired interface to be used also by those who can read. For
example, if all electronic voting machines incorporated the reading impaired
interface, then reading impaired voters would not be segregated onto a
subset of the voting machines.
It is important that the ballot not record the fact that a particular ballot
was produced using the reading impaired interface. Nor should the electronic
voting machine record that information for specific ballots. Using a separate
voting station for the reading impaired means that the audit trail is
segregated by whether the voter is reading impaired.
#. Privacy Issues in an Electronic Voting Machine 13
Nonetheless, it is useful for the electronic voting machine to maintain
some statistics on the use of the reading impaired interface, provided that
these statistics cannot identify specific ballots or voters. These statistics
could be used to improve the user interface, for example.
5.5 Privacy issues with barcodes
The Open Voting Consortium system design uses a barcode to automate
the scanning of paper ballots. Such barcodes raise several possibilities for
introducing covert channels.
The prototype/demo system presented by OVC, for example, used a 1-D
barcode, specifically Code128. For vote encoding, selections were first
converted to a decimal number in a reasonably, but not optimally, efficient
manner; specifically, under the encoding particular digit positions have a
direct relationship to corresponding vote selections. These digits, in turn, are
encoded using the decimal symbology mode of Code128.
Co-author David Mertz identified the problem that even though barcodes
are not per-se human readable, identical patterns in barcodes — especially
near their start and end positions — could be recognized by observers. This
recognition would likely even be unconscious after poll workers saw
hundred of exposed barcodes during a day. For example, perhaps after a
while, a poll worker would notice that known Bush supporters always have
three narrow bars followed by a wide bar at the left of their barcode, while
known Kerry supporters have two wide bars and two narrow bars. To
prevent an attack based on this kind of human bar code recognition, 1-D
barcodes undergo a simple obfuscation of rotating digits by amounts keyed
to a repetition of the random ballot-id. This “keying” is not even weak
encryption—it resembles a Caesar cipher,
22 but with a known key; it merely
makes the same vote look different on different ballots.
In the future, OVC anticipates needing to use 2-D barcodes to
accommodate the information space of complex ballots and ancillary
anonymity-preserving information such as globally unique ballot-IDs and
cryptographic signatures. At this point, we anticipate that patterns in 2-D
barcodes will not be vulnerable to visual recognition; if they are, the same
kind of obfuscation discussed above is straightforward. But the greatly
expanded information space of 2-D barcodes is a vulnerability as well as a
benefit. More bit space quite simply provides room to encode more improper
information. For example, if a given style of barcode encodes 2000 bits of
information, and a particular ballot requires 500 bits to encode, those unused
1500 bits can potentially contain improper information about the voter who
cast the ballot.
22 See http://www.fact-index.com/c/ca/caesar_cipher.html (Last visited February 13, 2005).
14 Chapter #
Just because a barcode has room for anonymity-compromising
information does not mean that information is actually encoded there, of
course. Preventing misuse of an available channel requires complementary
steps. Moreover, even a narrow pipe can disclose quite a lot; it only takes
about 10 bits to encode a specific address within a precinct using a lookup
table. Even a relatively impoverished channel might well have room for a
malicious ten bits. For example, if a non-optimal vote encoding is used to
represent votes, it is quite possible that multiple bit-patterns will correspond
to the same votes. The choice among “equivalent” bit patterns might leak
Eliminating barcodes, it should be noted, does not necessarily eliminate
covert channels in a paper ballot. It might, however, increase voter
confidence as average voters become less concerned about covert channels
(which is both good and bad). For example, even a barcode-free printed
ballot could use steganography
23 to encode information in the micro-spacing
between words, or within security watermarks on the page.
5.6 Ballot validation station
The Ballot Validation Station allows reading impaired voters—or
anyone—to hear and therefore validate their paper ballots. Since only the
barcode of the ballot (and possibly the ballot type—the precinct and party
for primaries) is viewable (and as mentioned above, the barcode is
obscured), it is best to keep the paper ballot in the privacy folder. So the
Ballot Validation Station should be able to read the barcode without
removing the paper ballot from the privacy folder. The back of the ballot
should have a barcode (possibly preprinted) saying “please turn over,” so a
Ballot Validation Station will know to tell the blind voter that the ballot is
upside down. So that others will not hear the Ballot Validation Station speak
the choices on the ballot, the voter should hear these choices through
It is useful to know how many times the Ballot Validation Station is used,
and how many consecutive times the same ballot is spoken. It is important to
assure that ballot-IDs are not persistently stored by the Ballot Validation
Station. In particular, to tell how many consecutive times the same ballot
was spoken, the Ballot Validation Station must store the previous ballot-ID.
However, once another ballot with a different ballot-ID is read, then that
new ballot-ID should replace the previous ballot-ID. And the ballot-ID field
should be cleared during the end-of-day closeout. The counts of consecutive
reads of the same ballot should be a vector of counts, and no other ordering
23 Neil F. Johnson and Sushil Jajodia, Steganography: Seeing the Unseen, IEEE COMPUTER
(February 1998) at 26-34.
#. Privacy Issues in an Electronic Voting Machine 15
information should be maintained. Inspection of the code together with clear
interfaces of persistently maintained records can help assure privacy.
Steve Chessin has identified a problem with ballots for non-English
speakers. For the voter, the ballot must be printed in her own language.
However, for canvassing and manual counts, the ballot and its choices must
also be printed in English. However, this approach makes bilingual ballots
easy to identify, and that can compromise ballot anonymity if only a small
number of voters in a given precinct choose a particular language. Steve
Chessin’s solution is to have all ballots contain both English and another
language, where the other language is randomly chosen for English
It is important that the Ballot Validation Station handle multiple
languages so the voter can choose the language for validating the ballot. To
simplify this process, the ballot barcode can include a notation of the second
language, but only if that information does not compromise anonymity.
Always choosing a second language at random where none is specifically
requested reduces the risk. When the ballot’s barcode is scanned by the
Ballot Validation Station, the voter is given a choice of these two languages
for the spoken review of choices listed on the ballot.
5.8 Randomization of ballot-IDs
Under the OVC design, ballots carry ballot-IDs. In our prototype, these
IDs are four digit numbers, which provides enough space for ten thousand
ballots to be cast at a polling place. We anticipate this ballot-ID length to
24 It is important to note that the procedure for randomizing the second, non-English language
printed on a ballot would have to be quite good. Flaws in the randomization or maliciously
planted code could result in the “marking” of certain ballots leading to a compromise of
ballot privacy. A simple solution would be to have all ballots printed only in English, and
requiring non-English literate voters to use the BVA to verify their vote auditorily. As an
alternative for ballots printed only in English, ballot overlays could by provided for each
language needed for each ballot type. The overlay could either be in heavy stock paper
printed with the contest names with holes for the selections to show through, or it could be
a translation sheet showing all the contest names and selections translated into non-English
language. In the former case, the ballots would have to be have the layout of each contest
fixed, so it would be necessary to have extra spaces when the length of the results vary,
such as for pick up to 3 candidates when only 2 were selected. These overlays could be
tethered to every voting machine so that voters who read only a specific language could
simply place the overlay over their ballot so that she could read their selections as if the
ballot was printed in their native language. The overlay approach reduces confusion for
English speakers and it also reduces the length of the printed ballot.
16 Chapter #
remain sufficient in production. The main purpose of ballot-IDs is simply to
enable auditing of official paper ballots against unofficial electronic ballot
The crucial feature of ballot-IDs is that they must not reveal any
information about the sequence of votes cast. The prototype and current
reference implementation use Python’s ‘random’ module to randomize the
order of ballot-IDs. The module uses the well-tested Mersenne Twister
algorithm, with a periodicity of 219937–1. Seeding the algorithm with a
good source of truly random data—such as the first few bytes of
/dev/random on modern Linux systems—prevents playback attacks to
duplicate ballot-ID sequences.
Because the ballot-IDs are generated at random by each of the electronic
voting machines, it is important that two machines do not use the same
random ballot-ID. As a result, the first digit (or character) of the ballot-ID in
the reference platform will represent the voting machine ID for that polling
The remaining 3 digits of the ballot-ID are randomly selected from the
range of 000 to 999. A list is maintained of already used ballot-IDs for this
electronic voting machine for this election. (One way to obtain such a list is
to scan the stored electronic ballot images for the ballot numbers used.) If
the random number generated matches an already used ballot-ID, then that
number is skipped and a new random number is generated.
5.9 Information hidden in electronic ballot images and their files
The electronic ballot images (EBIs) are stored on the electronic voting
machine where the ballot was created. One purpose of maintaining these
EBIs is to reconcile them against the paper ballots, to help preclude paper
ballot stuffing. The EBIs are in XML format, which can be interpreted when
printed in “raw” form.
We prefer not to store the EBIs in a database on the electronic voting
machine. A database management system incurs additional complexity,
potential for error, and can contain sequence information that can be used to
identify voters. On the other hand, flat files in XML format would include
the date and time in the file directory, and that is also a potential privacy
risk. We can mitigate this risk by periodically “touching” EBI files
electronically during voting station operation, in order to update the date and
time of all files to the latest time. The placement order of the files on the
disk, however, may still disclose the order of balloting.
Another approach is to store all the EBIs in a single file as if it were an
array. Suppose that it is determined that the largest XML-format EBI is 10K
bytes. Since there are 1000 possible ballot-IDs for this electronic voting
machine, it is possible to create a file with 1000 slots, each of which is 10K
#. Privacy Issues in an Electronic Voting Machine 17
in length. When the ballot is to be printed, the random ballot-ID is chosen,
and the EBI is placed in that slot in the file, padded to the full 10K in length
with spaces (which would be removed during canonicalization). The file can
be updated in place, thereby having only the latest date and time.
Alternatively, two files can be used, and the electronic voting machine can
write to one, wait for completion, and then write to the other. The benefit of
this approach is increased reliability of persistent storage of the EBI file.
A similar technique can be used to maintain copies of the Postscript versions
of the ballots.
When the polling place closes, the electronic voting machine is changed
to close out the day’s voting. At this time, the EBIs are written as individual
flat files in ascending ballot-ID order to a new session of the CD-R that
already contains the electronic voting machine software and personalization.
Because the EBIs are written all at once, and in order by ascending random
ballot-ID, anonymity is preserved.
5.10 Public vote tallying
It is important that the ballots be shuffled before publicly visible scanning
occurs using the Ballot Reconciliation System. The ballots will naturally be
ordered based on the time they were placed in the ballot box. As described
above, the time or sequence of voting is a potential risk for privacy
An illustration of this problem was reported privately to co-author Arthur
Keller about a supposedly secret tenure vote at a university. Each professor
wrote his or her decision to grant or deny tenure on a piece of paper. The
pieces of paper were collected and placed on top of a pile one-by-one in a
sequence determined by where each person was sitting. The pile was then
turned over and the votes were then read off the ballots in the reverse of that
sequence as they were tallied. One observer noted how each of the faculty
members voted in this supposedly secret vote.
5.11 Results by precinct
A key approach to ensuring the integrity of county (or other district)
canvassing (i.e., vote tallying) is to canvass the votes at the precinct and post
the vote totals by contest at the precinct before sending on the data to the
county. As a crosscheck, the county should make available the vote totals by
contest for each precinct. However, because the county totals include
absentee votes, it is difficult to reconcile the posted numbers at the precinct
against the county’s totals by precinct, unless the county separates out
absentee votes (plus hand-done polling place votes). However providing
these separations may reduce the aggregation size to impair anonymity. An
18 Chapter #
even worse threat to anonymity arises when provisional ballots are
incrementally approved and added to the tally one-by-one.
We propose to exclude provisional ballots from the results posted at the
precinct. The county tallies by precinct should be separated into a group of
votes included in the precinct-posted tally and a group of votes not included
in the precinct-posted tally. As long as there is a publicly viewable
canvassing of the votes not included in the precinct-posted tally, the issue of
voter confidence in the system will be addressed. If that canvassing process
involves ballots that have already been separated from the envelope
containing the voter’s identity, privacy is enhanced.
The totals by precinct are aggregate counts for each candidate. There is
no correlation among specific ballots, an important factor to help assure
privacy. However, ranked preference voting schemes, such as instant runoff
voting, require that the ordering of the candidates must be separately
maintained for each ballot. Vote totals are useful to help assure that each
vote was counted, but they do not contain enough information to produce an
absolute majority winner. Therefore, vote totals can be posted at the
precinct — independent of ranking — and those totals can also be posted at
the county. A voter who specifies a write-in candidate for a ranked
preference voting race might in principle be doing so as a marker for
observation during the canvassing process. To ensure anonymity, write-in
candidates whose vote totals are below a certain threshold could be
eliminated from the canvassing process. This threshold must be set to avoid
distortions of aggregate scores at the county level.
5.12 Privacy in the face of voter collusion
Complex cast ballots, taken as a whole, inevitably contain potential
covert channels. We reach a hard limit in the elimination of improper
identifying information once voter collusion is considered. In an ideal case,
voters cooperate in the protection of their own anonymity; but threats of vote
coercion or vote buying can lead voters to collaborate in disclosing—or
rather, proving—their own identity. It is, of course, the right of every voter
to disclose her own votes to whomever she likes; but such disclosure must
not be subject to independent verifications that attack voter anonymity as a
Elections with many contests, with write-ins allowed, or with
information-rich ranked preference contests, implicitly contain extra fields in
which to encode voter identity. For example, if an election contains eight
judicial retention questions, there are at least 6561 possible ways to complete
a ballot, assuming Yes, No, and No Preference are all options for each
question. Very few precincts will have over 6561 votes cast within them, so
a systematic vote buyer could demand that every voter cast a uniquely
identifying vote pattern on judicial retentions. That unique pattern, plus the
#. Privacy Issues in an Electronic Voting Machine 19
precinct marked on a ballot, in turn, could be correlated with a desired vote
for a contested office.
Ballots may not generally be completely separated into records by each
individual contest. For recounts or other legal challenges to elections, it is
generally necessary to preserve full original ballots, complete with correlated
votes. Of course it is physically possible to cut apart the contest regions on a
paper ballot, or to perform a similar separation of contests within an EBI.
However, doing so is not generally permissible legally.
The best we can do is to control the disclosure of full ballots to mandated
authorities, and maintain the chain of custody over the ballots, including the
EBIs. A full ballot must be maintained, but only aggregations of votes, per
contest, are disclosed to the general public. The number of people who have
access to full ballots should be as limited as feasible, and even people with
access to some full ballots should not necessarily be granted general access
to all full ballots.
5.13 Privacy in electronic voting machines with
voter-verifiable paper audit trails
This section discusses other approaches to voter-verifiable paper audit
trails. These issues do not apply to the design described in this paper ─ the
voter-verifiable paper ballot.
Rebecca Mercuri has proposed that Direct Recording Electronic voting
machines have a paper audit trail that is maintained under glass, so the voter
does not have the opportunity to touch it or change it.
26 Some vendors are
proposing that paper from a spool be shown to the voter, and if the ballot is
verified, a cutter will release the paper audit trail piece to drop into the box
27 The challenge with this approach is to make sure that all
of the paper audit trail is readable by the voter and does not curl away out of
view, and yet that paper audit trails from previous voters are obscured from
view. Furthermore, there is the problem that the paper audit trail would fall
in a more-or-less chronologically ordered pile. It is also difficult to reconcile
the paper audit trail with the electronic ballot images in an automated
manner if the paper audit trail cannot be sheet-fed.
25 See http://evm2003.sourceforge.net/security.html for the difference between a paper receipt
and a paper ballot, and between a paper audit trail and an electronically generated paper
ballot. 26 Rebecca Mercuri, A Better Ballot Box?, IEEE SPECTRUM ONLINE (October 2002), available
http://spectrum.ieee.org/WEBONLY/publicfeature/oct02/evot.html 27 For
reference, see Avanti VOTE-TRAKKERTMEVC308, available at
20 Chapter #
Another approach is to keep the paper audit trail on a continuous spool.
While this approach has the potential to allow the audit trail to be more
easily scanned in an automated fashion for reconciliation, privacy is
compromised by maintaining an audit trail of the cast ballots in
chronological order. We described above why maintaining order information
is a problem for privacy.
We have described the Open Voting Consortium’s voting system that
includes a PC-based open-source voting machine with a voter-verifiable
accessible paper ballot, and discussed the privacy issues inherent in this
system. By extension, many of the privacy issues in this paper also apply to
other electronic voting machines, such as Direct Recording Electronic voting
machines. The discussion illustrates why careful and thorough design is
required for voter privacy. Even more work would be required to ensure that
such systems are secure and reliable.
We acknowledge the work of the volunteers of the Open Voting Consortium
who contributed to the design and implementation we describe. In particular,
Alan Dechert developed much of the design and Doug Jones provided
significant insights into voting issues. The demonstration software was
largely developed by Jan Kärrman, John-Paul Gignac, Anand Pillai, Eron
Lloyd, David Mertz, Laird Popkin, and Fred McLain. Karl Auerbach wrote
an FAQ on which the OVC system description is based. Amy Pearl also
contributed to the system description. Kurt Hyde and David Jefferson gave
valuable feedback. David Dill referred some of the volunteers.
An extended abstract of this paper appeared at the Workshop on Privacy
in the Electronic Society on October 28, 2004 in Washington DC, part of
ACM CCS 2004 (Conference on Computer and Communications Security).
Other papers on this topic are at http://www-db.stanford.edu/pub/keller
under electronic voting. More information on the Open Voting Consortium
may be found at http://www.openvotingconsortium.org.
28 Press Release, Sequoia Voting Systems, Sequoia Voting Systems Announces Plan to Market
Optional Voter Verifiable Paper Record Printers for Touch Screens in 2004,
available at http://www.sequoiavote.com/article.php?id=54