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E-Voting Raises New Issues

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Palo Alto, Calif. We've used the vote-a-matic punch card system out here in california, and I've never gotten a hanging chad, or any other such problem. Did anyone look at how well the punch card systems worked when election workers made sure they had a sharp stylus and they were cleaned out on a regular basis during the voting day? How do you think it would compare in accuracy to deploying a bunch of completely new kinds of systems as we are doing now?

Dan Keating: Studies show that the highest rate of ballots that don't register a vote (called "spoilage") is when jurisdictions change. Change causes problems for workers, volunteers and voters.


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The problem with punchcards is that the voting behavior bears no resemblance to anything anyone ever does in their life at any other time. And there's no feedback that you've done it correctly. So it's rare, unusual and provides no guidance on whether you've done it correctly.

Error rates vary. Some counties with punchcards did not have high error rates. The highest error rates came with badly designed ballots -- punchcard or optical scan -- and no feedback system to tell people when ballots were mismarked.

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Frederick, Md.: What government agencies are overseeing the security of the electronic voting machines?

Dan Keating: There's no federal control. Some states don't even have a state standard.

Most states, though, adopt the federal guidelines that used to be done by the Federal Election Commission and are now the province of the federal Election Assistance Commission, EAC, that just came into existance this year. That commission has a technical guidance committee helping to formulate guidelines. The research to guide the work has not yet been funded.

The manufacturers then submit their equipment/software to Independent Testing Authorities -- private companies -- who decide whether the equipment meets the standards. Because the manufacturer pays for the ITA, the relationship is private and the ITA won't discuss what it finds except to say things are certified.

Some states then do a further cursory check. Some states also keep copies of the software that is certified, though use of uncertified software is widespread.

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Washington, D.C.: Since we are already able to do so much via the Internet, i.e. file taxes, pay bills, look at medical records etc. Why didn't we implement a voting system that could use existing secure Internet technology to vote from our homes, libraries, and schools via state's Web sites?

It seems it would be a lot less expensive than investing in new machines and could have made voting a lot easier for a lot of people who work in offices.

Dan Keating: Many people think this is the future. Michigan has internet voting in its Democratic presidential primary this spring.

The Pentagon had a pilot project to have military overseas vote on the Internet. But a review committee criticized it on grounds that it was impossible to know whether a user's computer was virus-infected.

Here's a scenario I heard. Hackers sniff the web for e-mail of people requesting or getting approval for online voting. It then sends them a follow-up e-mail saying "We know the voting computers are going to be busy on election day, so we encourage you to vote today -- here's the link ...." They give a fake link to their machine, where they steal the vote and get the password, which they can then vote as they choose.

It's like the current phishing scams.

There's a book, Point, Click and Vote by Mike Alvarez and Thad Hall about the future of Internet voting. It's used a fair amount in Europe.

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Baltimore, Md.: In Maryland, under the old system, the votes for each candidate weren't counted until after the polls had closed. (Although the number of people voting is posted throughout the day).

With e-voting, wouldn't it be possible, not only to count the number of voters, but to actually take running tallies every hour or so, as well as at the end of the day? That way, if something fishy was done after the polls had closed, there would be a record of the total votes for each candidate at defined periods throughout the day.

Dan Keating: The individual voting terminals are NOT networked together, so nothing can be pushed out to them (like a virus) and nothing can be read from them until the end of the day. Workers at the end of the day collect the votes from each machine before sending them in.

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St Petersburg, Fla.: This memo has been circulating in email lately. Is it a good idea?

If you are concerned about whether your e-vote will actually be counted, I just heard about a great idea to help ease some of your worries. Write-in yourself as a candidate in one of the unopposed races. You can then check with your local election office to see if you got a vote in that race. If you didn't, you should have some concerns.

Dan Keating: Officials only tabulate votes for certified write-in candidates.

I was part of the media group that reviewed 175,000 ballots that didn't register a vote in Florida 2000. I saw many, many ballots with write-ins for Clint Eastwood and Barney and Bart Simpson, but they don't get tabulated.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Though I'm in favor of electronic voting, it's essential that voters have a way to confirm that their electronic votes have been casted correctly. Voters have no way to verify the integrity and security of these new systems... what assurances can we be given without a paper trail?

Dan Keating: The assurance you are being offered is that the state and county swear that the machines and software have been tested and work perfectly. That's it.

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Lincoln, Mass.: I understand that the touch-screen voting machines can be programmed to "tally" the votes incorrectly. Can the programming of these machines be examined to see if this is true?

Dan Keating: The machines record a vote (usually in more than one place) and also keep totals. At the end of the day, the totals are collected into a big tabulator.


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