Building a More Secure Electronic Voting System

Computer scientists design an encrypted voting system to safeguard the integrity of elections.

By Julie Rehmeyer|Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Steve Cukrov/Shutterstock

Three years ago, Dana DeBeauvoir, a county clerk in Austin, Texas, had a problem. Soon she’d have to replace the aging voting machines her county had bought eight years earlier. Congress had ponied up the money for those machines, driven by the hanging chad debacle in Florida’s 2000 election. But this time, the feds weren’t coughing up any cash. 

Even if she had the money, though, she didn’t like her choices. Computer scientists had been sounding alarms about the rampant security flaws in voting machines for years, and the manufacturers hadn’t responded. So DeBeauvoir took a very unusual step: She gave the keynote speech at a computer voting security conference, challenging the assembled computer scientists to build her the voting system of her dreams. 

She outlined four requirements. First, the system had to use inexpensive, off-the-shelf hardware. Second, voters had to know that their votes were counted accurately and that the election outcome was correct. Third, voter privacy had to be protected — in particular, vote-selling had to be impossible, allowing no way for a voter to show anyone else their vote. And finally, it had to be convenient and practical, requiring few extra steps for voters or election officials.

Dan Wallach, a computer scientist from Rice University who was in the audience, was electrified. He and a few hand-picked colleagues flew to Austin and got to work. Their central tool was cryptography, the same idea that allows you to safely send your credit card number over the Internet via encrypted numbers. They named the system STAR-Vote: Secure, Transparent, Auditable and Reliable Voting System.

It essentially creates an automatic recount every election, without the expense of lawyers and the immense effort involved in traditional methods. “The auditing process happens largely electronically, so it’s cheap,” Wallach says. Not, he adds, that money should necessarily be the top concern when democracy is at stake.

Click through the presentation below to see how STAR-Vote works. You can click, zoom and drag at any point during the presentation. 

[This article originally appeared in print as "Lock the Vote."]

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