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A Touchy Debate Over Voting

By Cynthia L. Webb
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2004; 9:54 AM

With the presidential election less than six weeks away, activists and security experts are ratcheting up concern over the use of touch-screen machines to cast votes.

After the 2000 election debacle and recount fiasco in Florida brought the words "hanging chads" and "butterfly ballots" to the masses, technology was hailed as a way to help reform voting nationwide by simplifying the way citizens vote for candidates and providing a paperless electronic count of votes. But with a slew of states adopting e-voting technology and planning to use electronic voting boxes for the upcoming national election, some critics of the technology are increasing their drumbeat of warnings of potential hacking attacks and other problems.


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Washingtonpost.com is out with a package of articles on the e-voting debate, including a piece highlighting the state of Maryland's battle over e-voting technology. Voting activists want a paper trail to certify the votes in case of any problems with the machines, but voting in the state will be paperless for now. "Earlier this month the state's highest court upheld a circuit judge's ruling against an injunction that would have forced changes for the upcoming election," the article explained. That doesn't mean Nov. 2 isn't being held out as a case study for potential hits and misses with e-voting. "This year, some 6 million Washington-area voters will tap computer screens instead of pulling levers, punching cards or marking ballots. Some of them have used the machines before, but this year will see their most widespread use yet. It is a key test of their reliability as they take a major part in determining the outcome of what might be one of the closest presidential elections in American history," wp.com wrote.

The article boils down some of the problems election officials have with making changes to their newly minted e-voting systems. "Some voting machine makers already are testing versions of their machines with printers attached, but that could add hundreds of dollars to the cost of the hardware. State and local governments have already spent millions of dollars on computerized voting machines, and do not relish shelling out more cash. Local elections boards say that even if they wanted to, they can't do it in time for this election because the machines would have to undergo a new round of federal and state certification."
washingtonpost.com: 'A Massive Experiment' in Voting (Registration required)
washingtonpost.com: E-Voting: Promise or Peril? (Registration required)

The Los Angeles Times weighed in with its own piece on e-voting, focusing on reform efforts in Florida, a crucial battle state again in 2004 as Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and President Bush vie for the White House. The article provides a helpful survey of just how many states have bought into e-voting reform and the controversy that has dogged the technology over the past year. "More than 45 million people in 29 states and the District of Columbia are set to vote using touch-screen machines Nov. 2. But the devices once hailed as the answer to the nation's voting woes are stirring up some serious cases of buyer's remorse here and across the country. California officials have accused the companies that make electronic voting machines of delivering shoddy equipment and are suing to get their money back. Candidates in other states seeking to overturn questionable election results have turned to the courts as well. Election reform advocates rallied in 19 states this summer, demanding that the machines be retrofitted to produce paper ballots that could be tallied in the event of a recount. Meanwhile, computer scientists from coast to coast have warned that the machines sometimes err in counting votes and could be easily compromised by amateur hackers intent on disrupting elections. In either case, they say, a manual recount would be meaningless if it was based on corrupted electronic data. All of this has left officials like Palm Beach County Commissioner Addie Greene wishing they hadn't rushed to spend millions of dollars on the new touch-screen machines so soon," the article said.

The main concern of critics like Greene, according to the article, is how recounts can be done with no physical ballots to count. "Now election officials in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade [counties] are lobbying the state for permission to attach printers to their new machines so votes can be tallied by hand if a malfunction is suspected or a recount is called for. But state officials, including Gov. Jeb Bush, say the machines are safe, easy to use and replete with safeguards to ensure accuracy. They note that a stored digital image of each vote can be printed for a manual recount. And they say printers are expensive, difficult to maintain for poll workers and useless for blind people who can't read the paper record," the Los Angeles Times reported.
The Los Angeles Times: Tallying the Woes of Electronic Balloting (Registration required)

Critics Turn Up Volume

The e-voting battle heated up in Washington this week, led by Bev Harris of the activist group Black Box Voting. "Activists and computer programmers Wednesday demonstrated what they said were flaws with electronic voting machines that could allow hackers to change vote outcomes Nov. 2. They recommended new procedures for states and counties to put in place before Election Day. Voting machine manufacturers, however, denied their machines could be tampered with and dismissed the demonstration as scare tactics. The head of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission said at least some of the proposed changes were unrealistic," the Associated Press reported. Reuters noted Harris and other activists "said officials still have time to set up a paper trail as a counterweight to an electronic voting system they portrayed as wide open to manipulation."

More from Reuters: "The debate over electronic voting has largely centered on touch-screen systems like Diebold Inc.'s AccuVote-TS, which will be used by roughly one in three voters this November. But a far greater threat is posed by the software used to tabulate votes on the county level, which counts not only electronic votes but those cast using traditional paper-based methods, Harris and others said," the wire service reported. "At a press conference, computer-security experts demonstrated what they said were flaws in tabulating software made by Diebold and Sequoia Voting Systems." Harris helped show a film on Wednesday of a chimpanzee breaking into an election, the Associated Press said. "Using a laptop computer, she demonstrated what she said were easy hacks to software by Ohio-based Diebold Inc., which is used in central tabulators that will count votes Nov. 2 in some 1,000 counties. Harris contended that hackers could easily change vote totals by entering the database through a backdoor method. She also claimed hackers could enter the standard way after obtaining passwords, then manipulate vote totals and cover their tracks."

Wired News, which noted Harris and another activist have filed a lawsuit against Diebold, said: "The vulnerabilities involve the Global Election Management System, or GEMS, software that runs on a county's server and tallies votes after they come in from Diebold touch-screen and optical-scan machines in polling places. The GEMS program generates reports of preliminary and final election results that the media and states use to call the winners. David Jefferson, a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and a member of the California secretary of state's voting systems panel, agreed with Diebold that election procedures could help prevent or detect changes in votes, but said that election officials and poll workers do not always follow procedures. Therefore, election observers need to know about the vulnerabilities so they can help reduce the risk that someone could use them to rig an election."

But a lot of this may just be hot air so close to the election. Black Box's associate director, Andy Stephenson, "said at least one congressional office has expressed interest in legislation proposed by Black Box Voting that would require paper ballots in the upcoming elections for president and Congress," IDG News Service reported. "Supporters of such a bill would have to act fast. Congressional leaders are planning to adjourn around Oct. 1 and not come back to Washington until after the election. Asked if it was too late to stop Diebold and other e-voting machines from being used in the fall election, Stephenson answered, 'Pretty much.'"
The Associated Press via the San Jose Mercury News: Activists Demonstrate Alleged Flaws in Voting Software (Registration required)
Reuters: Electronic Vote Critics Urge Changes to System
Wired News: Activists Find More E-Vote Flaws
IDG News Service: Consumer Group Questions Diebold E-Voting Security


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