September 2, 2014

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Test of voter privacy has officials seeking a legislative cure

COLUMBUS — A privacy consultant who set out to test the security of Ohio’s publicly available voting data says he has been able to determine how some people voted on a yes-no issue.

The findings James Moyer reported on the Internet concerned election officials and prompted them to work with the state Legislature to fix the problem. Moyer is scheduled to meet today with Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, the state’s chief elections official.

“It’s something everyone is interested in fixing,” said Aaron Ockerman, a lobbyist for the Ohio Association of Election Officials.

Reviewing one yes-no issue in a small precinct in suburban Columbus, Moyer was able to match poll books signed by voters with the time stamps that appear on paper backup tapes from electronic voting machines. Such machines are used in more than half of Ohio’s 88 counties. Both are public records.

He had begun to suspect that voter privacy was at risk while working as a volunteer poll worker in Franklin County, which includes Columbus. While watching voters sign precinct books and line up to use electronic touch-screen machines, he theorized that someone might be able to match the signatures and the time stamps from the machines to see how someone voted.

To test the theory, Moyer and a friend pulled records from a 2006 levy for disability services at the Delaware County Board of Elections and entered it in their laptops. With a computer program, Moyer sifted the data to determine which voter used which machine, an exercise he simplified by using a precinct with only two machines.

Once voters’ choices were matched, Moyer made follow-up calls to the individuals, and all confirmed he had their votes right. Others who have seen the results on the Internet, however, said his data about them was wrong.

Matthew Damschroder, director of the Franklin County Board of Elections, noted the matchups could easily fall apart in larger precincts where multiple machines and voter behavior would more easily skew the counting.

Marva and Ray Leroy Bennett, who saw an article about Moyer’s work online, said his data is wrong in showing that he voted against the levy and she skipped it. Now of Morrow County, they said they are strong supporters of disability services and recall voting for the levy.

“It does bother me,” Marva Bennett said. “I always thought your votes were always private.”

Making an on-the-spot paper record of each person’s electronic vote was thought to provide a safeguard against the possibility that the new technology could be manipulated to change people’s votes without their knowledge.

A paper tape was mandated to assure that manual recounts of the vote were possible. Time stamps were added to voter receipts, along with a backup tape of those receipts, as a result of national recommendations.

The solution lawmakers are considering would obscure the time stamps when the paper tapes are provided to members of the public.
“Time stamps are a sensible thing to do if you’re an auditor,” Moyer said, but not if you’re a privacy advocate.