Making electronic voting safe

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LISA MULLINS: Computerized voting was supposed to be the answer to Florida's hanging chad fiasco in the 2000 presidential election, but computer voting has proved erratic and unreliable. And so researchers have been experimenting with cryptography to create reliable, tamper-proof online voting systems. One team at a Belgian university has been researching a voter-verifiable system that holds real promise. Today, it's going to be put to the test in a real election at the school. From Louvaine-la-Neuve, Cyrus Farivar has details.

CYRUS FARIVAR: The Universite Catholique de Louvain is about an hour's train ride from Brussels. And it's where some of the most cutting-edge research on voting technology is taking place right now.

OLIVIER PERIERA: I'm Olivier Periera. I'm a professor here at Universite Catholique de Louvain. I'm doing research on cryptography and more and more on voting.

FARIVAR: Periera is leading a team here in a test of Helios. It's an online voting system that encrypts your vote. That's the same technology that's used to keep your online bank transactions secret. In this case, Helios uses cryptography to count votes accurately and preserve voter privacy. Periera says he's been paying students here to test it out.

PERIERA: We want people to vote and to get � become familiar with the system, as it's something completely new for the people. We want them to be comfortable with the system before the real election takes place.

FARIVAR: The real election being a vote for the University's president. One of the things that makes Helios new is that it's designed to be voter verifiable. The election results come with a mathematical proof of the tally. That means a mathematically inclined voter could check to see whether the votes were counted correctly. Ben Adida is the cryptographer who created Helios. He says his invention could be a big improvement over some of the voting systems, online or otherwise, now in use in the U.S.

BEN ADIDA: In an online election, you have no visibility into the system. You send your vote on Facebook or otherwise, and you basically fully trust that the server on the other end is tallying things correctly. And you have zero evidence that that's happening.

FARVIAR: Helios is free and open-source. That means that anyone, like Periera here in Belgium, can use it and tweak it for their own purposes. One of his graduate students has even made improvements so that the tallying goes much faster than in Adida's original version. Once the voting is complete, Periera says, the encrypted votes can be published on a public website.

PERIERA: We don't know if someone will check to see if we did our job correctly, but what we are sure of is that it's there and someone can do it.

FARIVAR: In other words, it would only take one person who understands this math � I sure don't, but Adida and Periera think that I could � to be able to prove that the system isn't working properly. Still, while Helios may have promise, experts say it's not ready for primetime. David Wagner is a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He worries that at this stage, there might be some security risks if Helios were used in a real public election where voters cast ballots at home.

WAGNER: When people are voting from their own home computer, it doesn't protect you if you've got malware or spyware on your home computer. So it doesn't protect you against things that are important in public elections.

FARIVAR: Helios's developers say that's why a university election makes it a good testing ground. The elections for the next president of Universite Catholique de Louvain begin today. For The World, I'm Cyrus Farivar, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium.