Friday, November 23, 2007

Voting systems and real estate fraud

The vast majority of election officials are honest, hardworking, underpaid public servants whose goal is to ensure that every eligible voter has the opportunity to vote, and that vote is counted accurately. So too, the vast majority of people who work in tax collection authorities are honest, hardworking public servants who want to ensure that everyone pays their fair share, according to the laws.

Over the past few weeks, a scandal has rocked Washington DC city government. It seems that a group of at least a dozen officials in the real estate tax office put through false paperwork to generate real estate tax refunds to non-existent companies, and stole at least $30M in taxpayer funds over a period of years.

When thinking of voting systems, one of the primary safeguards is multiple control - even if there is one corrupt official trying to sway (or steal) elections, their attempt will be unmasked by others. That's supposed to happen in tax systems too - but evidently it didn't.

The primary criteria used in the widely acclaimed Brennan Center report was the number of people who had to be involved to pull off a fraudulent election. Many of the attacks were infeasible because the numbers were too high. But perhaps in light of the DC tax scandal, we need to reconsider how big a conspiracy can go undetected within a government organization.

Many of the election officials I've talked to say that many types of attacks, such as replacing software with malicious software, or changing ballot layouts, just can't happen because trusted people do the work. Is that really good enough to trust our democracy?


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