Why ballot images fail as the record of an election

A new paper demonstrates how to steal an election by manipulating ballot images: Unclear Ballot: Automated Ballot Image Manipulation <read>

The current crop of election optical scanners count elections by creating ballot images, followed by processing those images to create a record of the votes on those images, storing those votes in a computer record known as a Cast Vote Record (CVR).  Some would audit elections by only examining the images, rather than the paper ballots. Such audits can be useful, yet are ultimately limited by the opportunity for the images to be manipulated.  The paper shows how easy that is. In fact, it is a neat solution that changes the image before the CVR is created, in a way that would be hard to detect.

From the paper:

Using computer vision techniques, we develop an algorithm that automatically and seamlessly manipulates ballot images, moving voters’ marks so that they appear to be votes for the attacker’s preferred candidate. Our implementation is compatible with many widely used ballot styles, and we show that it is effective using a large corpus of ballot images from a real election. We also show that the attack can be delivered in the form of a malicious Windows scanner driver, which we test with a scanner that has been certified for use in vote tabulation by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. These results demonstrate that post-election audits must inspect physical ballots, not merely ballot images, if they are to strongly defend against computer-based attacks on widely used voting systems…

Uses for image audits. So long as image audits are not the sole mechanism for verifying election results, they do provide substantial benefits to election officials.Using an image audit vastly simplifies some functions of election administration,like ballot adjudication in cases where marks cannot be interpreted by scanners or are otherwise ambiguous. Image audits can be used to efficiently identify and document election discrepancies,

Read the paper. It shows why there is more to it than making a few marks on a ballot.

For the non-technical this may seem difficult, yet for those with the appropriate computer skills it is a straight-forward task. Then anyone with access to election computer systems could install the code maliciously, unknowingly, or under threat.

 

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