Why Computers Shouldn't Count Votes

Rebecca Mercuri, Bryn Mawr College

The recent Presidential election has demonstrated major difficulties in the democratic process of counting votes. Even though the ballot problems in Florida were previously well known, voting and tabulating methods that are fundamentally flawed continue to be used there and elsewhere around the country. Proponents of electronic and web-based voting systems are quick to criticize punch cards and lever machines as being slow and antiquated. Yet the new computer-based systems promise to further compromise voter privacy and recount capability, a fact that some vendors and election boards do not want voters to know.

This talk will review lessons learned from the recent Presidential election and prior contested Florida elections, and will assess California's new Internet Voting Task Force proposal. It will also present some of the technical issues and challenges for secure electronic voting.

One approach to addressing these issues is the Common Criteria (CC), a security assurance methodology issued by the International Standards Organization (ISO) in the late 1990s. While the CC is extensive in scope, it does not resolve all issues of computer security, particularly when there are conflicting constraints such as the need for both anonymity and auditability. This talk will consider the application of the CC approach to electronic voting, and point out unavoidable flaws in the design of certain types of secure systems.

Rebecca Mercuri has written extensively and provided expert testimony and commentary on many electronic voting systems including those in Florida, New York City, Pennsylvania, and Hawaii. Her Ph.D. thesis from the University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering is titled "Electronic Vote Tabulation Checks & Balances."

She has been quoted extensively in the media on the current Presidential election, including by the Associated Press, Newhouse news service, the LA Times, NPR, and WHYY radio in Philadelphia. Her sworn affidavit regarding why hand recounts are important was part of the legal brief considered by the Florida judge on Monday morning, November 13, 2000.

A resident of Lawrenceville, Dr. Mercuri is a member of the Computer Science faculty at Bryn Mawr College, and is President of Notable Software, Inc. She is a founding board member of the ACM Princeton Chapter. Her main fields of emphasis are interactive multimedia and computer forensics. She also speaks frequently on digital audio topics.

Date: Thursday, November 16, 2000, 8:00 PM
Location: Auditorium, Sarnoff Corporation, 201 Washington Road (Rt 571 1/4 mile south of US 1), Princeton, NJ

Additional Information: recorded info (609) 924-8704, Dennis Mancl (908) 582-7086, or David Soll (215) 854-3461

A pre-meeting dinner with the speaker is held at 6 p.m. at the Rusty Scupper on Alexander Road in Princeton. If you would like to attend, please RSVP with an e-mail to or call the information number to record your reservation on the answering machine.

Princeton ACM / IEEE Computer Society meeting are open to the public. Students and their parents are welcome. There is no admission charge, and refreshments are served.