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Judge Suppresses Report on Voting Machine Security PDF  | Print |  Email
By Andrew Appel   
October 03, 2008
This article was posted at Ed Felten's Freedom to Tinker Blog and is reposted here with permission.

A judge of the New Jersey Superior Court has prohibited the scheduled release of a report on the security and accuracy of the Sequoia AVC Advantage voting machine. Last June, Judge Linda Feinberg ordered Sequoia Voting Systems to turn over its source code to me (serving as an expert witness, assisted by a team of computer scientists) for a thorough examination. At that time she also ordered that we could publish our report 30 days after delivering it to the Court--which should have been today.

Three weeks after we delivered the report, on September 24th Judge Feinberg ordered us not to release it. This is part of a lawsuit filed by the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic, seeking to decommission of all of New Jersey's voting computers. New Jersey mostly uses Sequoia AVC Advantage direct-recording electronic (DRE) models. None of those DREs can be audited: they do not produce a voter verified paper ballot that permit each voter to create a durable paper record of her electoral choices before casting her ballot electronically on a DRE. The legal basis for the lawsuit is quite simple: because there is no way to know whether the DRE voting computer is actually counting votes as cast, there is no proof that the voting computers comply with the constitution or with statutory law that require that all votes be counted as cast.

The question of whether this report can legally be suppressed was already argued once in this Court, in June 2008, and the Court concluded then that it should be released; I will discuss this below. But as a matter of basic policy--of running a democracy--the public and legislators who want to know the basic facts about the reliability of their elections need to be able to read reports such as this one. Members of the New Jersey Legislature--who need to act now because the NJ Secretary of State is not in compliance with laws the legislature passed in 2005--have asked to read this report, but they are precluded by the Court's order. Members of the public must decide now, in time to request an absentee ballot, whether to cast their ballot by absentee (counted by optical scan) or to vote on paperless DRE voting machines. Citizens also need information so that they can communicate to their legislators their opinions about how New Jersey should conduct elections. Even the Governor and the Secretary of State of New Jersey are not permitted, by the Court's order, to read this report in order to inform their policy making.

Examination of the AVC Advantage. In the spring of 2008, Judge Linda Feinberg ordered the defendants (officials of the State of New Jersey) to provide to the plaintiffs: (a) Sequoia AVC Advantage voting machines, (b) the source code to those voting machines, and (c) other specified information. The Sequoia Voting Systems company, which had not been a party to the lawsuit, objected to the examination of their source code by the plaintiffs' experts, on the grounds that the source code contained trade secrets. The Court recognized that concern, and crafted a Protective Order that permitted the plaintiffs' experts to examine the source code while protecting the trade secrets within it. However, the Court Order, issued by Judge Feinberg on June 20, does permit the plaintiffs' experts to release this report to the public at a specified time (which has now arrived). In fact, the clause of this Order that permits the release of the report was the subject of lengthy legal argument in May-June 2008, and the plaintiffs' experts were not willing to examine the AVC Advantage machines under conditions that prevent public discussion of their findings.

I served as the plaintiffs' expert witness and led an examination team including myself and 5 other computer scientists (Maia Ginsburg, Harri Hursti, Brian Kernighan, Chris Richards, and Gang Tan). We examined the voting machines and source code during July-August 2008. On September 2nd we provided to the Court (and to the defendants and to Sequoia) a lengthy report concerning the accuracy and security of the Sequioa AVC Advantage. The terms of the Court's Protective Order of June 20 permit us to release the report today, October 2nd.

However, on September 24 Judge Feinberg, "with great reluctance," orally ordered the plaintiffs not to release the report on October 2nd, and not to publicly discuss their conclusions from the study. She did so after the attorney for Sequoia grossly mischaracterized our report. In order to respect the Judge's temporary stay, I cannot now comment further on what the report does contain.

The plaintiffs are deeply troubled by the Court's issuance of what is essentially a temporary restraining order restricting speech, without any motion or briefing whatsoever. Issuing such an order is an extreme measure, which should be done only in rare circumstances, and only if the moving party has satisfied its high burden of showing both imminent harm and likelihood of success on the merits. Those two requirements have not been satisfied, nor can they be. The plaintiffs have asked the Court to reconsider her decision to suppress our report. The Court will likely hear arguments on this issue sometime in October. We hope and expect that the Court will soon permit publication of our report.
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