Election Whistle-Blower Stymied by Vendors
Sunday, March 26, 2006
MIAMI -- Among those who worry that hackers might sabotage election tallies, Ion Sancho is something of a hero.
The maverick elections supervisor in Leon County, Fla., last year helped show that electronic voting machines from one of the major manufacturers are vulnerable, according to experts, and would allow election workers to alter vote counts without detection.
Now, however, Sancho may be paying an unexpected price for his whistle-blowing: None of the state-approved companies here will sell him the voting machines the county needs.
"I've essentially embarrassed the current companies for the way they do business, and now I believe I'm being singled out for punishment by the vendors," he said.
There are three vendors approved to sell voting equipment in Florida, and each has indicated it cannot or will not fill Sancho's order for 160 voting machines for the disabled. Already, he has had to return a $564,000 federal grant to buy the machines because he has been unable to acquire the machines yet.
"I'm very troubled by this, to be honest -- I can't believe the way he's being treated," said David Wagner, a computer scientist at the University of California at Berkeley who sits on a California board that reviews voting machine security. "What kind of message is this sending to elections supervisors?"
The trouble began last year when Sancho allowed a Finnish computer scientist to test Leon County's Diebold voting machines, a common type that uses an optical scanner to count votes from ballots that voters have marked. Diebold Election Systems is one of the largest voting machine companies in the United States.
While some tests showed that the system is resistant to outside attack, others showed that elections workers could alter the vote tallies by manipulating the removable memory cards in the voting machines, and do so without detection.
A Diebold spokesman scoffed at the results, and compared them to "leaving your car unlocked, with the windows down and keys left in the ignition and then acting surprised when your car is stolen."
State officials similarly played down the results.
But last month, California elections officials arranged for experts to perform a similar analysis of the Diebold machines and also found them vulnerable -- noting a wider variety of flaws than Sancho's experts had. They characterized the vulnerabilities as "serious" but "fixable."
"What he [Sancho] discovered was -- oops -- that the conventional wisdom was all wrong," said Wagner, a member of the panel that reviewed the Diebold machines. "It was possible to subvert the memory card without detection."