Barbara Simons (Photo courtesy)

Q&A with Barbara Simons

For the last 15 years, Barbara Simons (Ph.D.’81 CS) — the 2005 College of Engineering Distinguished Alumna — has been talking about the voting process with anyone who will listen. In 2003, she started sounding the alarm after learning that election officials in Silicon Valley were advocating for the transition to paperless electronic voting machines. Simons began speaking out about the many dangers of using unverifiable technology to handle something as important as voting. Since then, Simons has served on the board of Verified Voting, a national non-profit, non-partisan organization that was founded by computer scientists and which advocates for voting best practices.  She also co-authored a book in 2012 titled “Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count?” Simons is co-founder of the Women in Computer Science and Engineering (WiCSE) and is the keynote speaker of the organization's 40th anniversary celebration on Saturday, March 17. 

Berkeley Engineering: How did you become interested in computing?

Simons: I came in through the back door. I had been out of school for nine years before I decided to go back. I was just separated from my husband and I had three little kids. I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree, but I was interested in math. After a conversation with my dad in which he suggested that I learn how to code because I didn’t really have any employable skills, I started taking programming and math classes.

BE: How did that lead to a Ph.D. in computer science?

Simons: In the early 1970s, computer science was a relatively new field. I started taking courses at the State University of New York at Stony Brook; there were so few undergraduate classes that in a couple of years I was doing graduate-level coursework. Someone suggested that since I was taking master-level courses, I should get a master’s degree. So I applied as a graduate student and was admitted.  After a year as a grad student at Stony Brook I applied for admission to Berkeley.  Because I missed the application deadline, I started taking classes part-time and teaching programming at night. After the first quarter, I was admitted and became a full-time graduate student. Richard Karp became my Ph.D. advisor and I wrote my dissertation on deterministic scheduling theory. Incidentally, I never did get a bachelor’s degree.

BE: Where does Women in Computer Science come in?

Simons: Because being a woman graduate student was somewhat isolating, a few other women and I started to get together once a week in the commons room to have lunch. Then we learned that if we became an official organization, we could qualify for some student money, so we decided to hold a conference aimed at bringing more women into computer science. In order to get the funding, we became an official student group: Women in Computer Science (WiCS) which later became WiCSE (the “e” was added to include engineering).

Because of outreach we did to students at community colleges and liberal arts majors on campus, about 600 women attended the conference.  

In the early 1980s, after we had received our Ph.D.s, Paula Hawthorn and I teamed up with Sheila Humphreys to create a re-entry program for women and minorities in computer science at Berkeley. A number of participants wound up getting a Ph.D., and the faculty really liked the program — the students were motivated because they were generally older and more focused on academics.  Unfortunately, the program was ended because of the passage of Prop 209.

BE: How did you first become involved in voting practices?

Simons: Because I was ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) president, I was invited to participate in a study of internet voting that had been requested by President Clinton back in 1999. At first I thought internet voting was an exciting idea, but after discussions with computer security experts, I realized that internet voting was a very dangerous proposition.

After the election in 2000, many people concluded from the hanging chads in Florida that paper ballots were bad. So there was a movement to replace the old technology with electronic voting machines, most of which were paperless. In 2002, the Help America to Vote Act was passed, and the idea was to replace old paper technology with electronic voting machines. The voting machine vendors were saying that electronic voting was great and secure, though we now know that they had no basis for their claim. Election officers were thrilled because at the end of the day they could just push a button and go home.

I found out in 2003 that the Silicon Valley Board of Supervisors was going to buy paperless machines…it was a real eye-opener. This led to the creation of Verified Voting, which was founded by David Dill (a computer science professor at Stanford at the time) and I became a member of the first board.

BE: Has anything changed since you first started voicing your concerns about electronic voting, or since you published Broken Ballots in 2012?

Simons: When I first started talking about the threats, many people thought I was worrying about nothing. Then, after the 2016 election, people’s attitudes changed and many of my friends and acquaintances starting worrying about elections. Fortunately, we know what needs to be done to protect voting systems from attack, namely paper ballots and manual post-election ballot audits to check the computerized machines that count the ballots. Regrettably, the states and the federal government are not treating the threat with the urgency it requires.

Currently, five states use only paperless voting machines and portions of eight other states deploy paperless voting machines. For example, 83 percent of Pennsylvania voters cast their ballots on paperless machines.  It is impossible to know if results from paperless machines are accurate because there is no way to determine if the machines have software bugs, been misprogrammed, or been hacked. Consequently, meaningful recounts cannot be conducted in any of these paperless states.

If we don’t have transparent and secure elections, those wanting to undermine our democracy could claim they hacked the election, whether or not they actually did. A lack of trust in our elections will undermine our democracy.  Therefore, we must have robust and resilient voting systems that demonstrate to the voters, and especially the losers and the losers’ supporters, that the election results are correct.

BE: Are there other forms of technology that would make elections more secure?

Simons: I’m a scientist, so I’m never going to say that there isn’t a better method out there. Some people are claiming that blockchain are a solution for internet voting, but they don’t solve the major security issues. Right now, the only secure technology is paper ballots accompanied by post-election manual ballot audits. 

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