Touch-Screen Machines Stir Election Anxiety in Md.

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 19, 2006

Touch-screen polling machines, which will be used statewide in Maryland when voters go to the polls for the Sept. 12 primary, were intended to calm fears of election flimflam raised in the wake of the infamous 2000 presidential balloting in Florida.

But the new machines themselves have become a politically charged topic in Maryland. Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who agreed to purchase them three years ago, now questions whether they can provide fair and accurate elections, given their vulnerability to computer hackers and their lack of a paper trail to document votes.

"There's a lot to be concerned about here," Ehrlich said recently.

Democrats, in turn, accuse the governor and the Republican Party of trying to dampen voter turnout through scare tactics. "It's highly unfortunate that Bob Ehrlich has chosen to alarm people about the integrity of the voting process," said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery), a candidate for state comptroller.

Yet Franchot and other Democrats acknowledge their own unease about the equipment.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who was a co-sponsor of the 2002 federal legislation that required states and counties to upgrade equipment, said he is concerned by reports from computer security experts that the voting machines could be manipulated to skew results.

"This is new technology, and we're going to have to watch it," he said. "We want to make sure this new technology is not used to undermine fairness."

State election officials say that their Diebold Elections Systems voting machines, which are being used in Maryland and 28 other states, are safe. "I think the system is fabulous," said Linda Lamone, administrator for the state Board of Elections. "It's probably the most secure system in the country."

Ehrlich has cast doubt on her assurances, citing warnings from computer scientists and accusing the Democrat-controlled General Assembly of stifling efforts to safeguard the system.

Lamone led Maryland's efforts to purchase the voting machines, making the state one of the first to go electronic in every precinct. The process began before Ehrlich took office, but in 2003 he signed a $55 million contract for additional machines and installation. Within weeks, Johns Hopkins University computer scientist Avi Rubin released a report that described the machines as flawed and easily hacked. He said Maryland officials should "ask for their money back."

Ehrlich commissioned a review by computer security consultants, who identified 328 security weaknesses, 26 of them critical. With the promise that the faults would be fixed, he agreed to honor the contract.

"Because of this report, Maryland voters will have one of the safest election environments in the nation," he declared in October 2003.

Joseph M. Getty, Ehrlich's policy director, said the assurances from Diebold and the state election board have not been met. "The board of elections has done nothing to reassure us," Getty said.

Ehrlich informed the board this year that he no longer had confidence in its "ability to conduct fair and accurate elections in 2006."

His concerns align him with a Takoma Park group, TrueVoteMD, that is pushing for a paper trail. "Over the past year, there have been a series of really alarming reports pointing to vulnerabilities, and so far, Maryland hasn't issued any real response," said Bob Ferraro, co-founder of the group.

Maryland is not alone in its concern. In the spring, a test of Diebold machines in Utah revealed how easily the machines could be tampered with, prompting California and Pennsylvania to warn their county election administrators to take additional security steps.

A June report by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, billed as the nation's first systematic analysis of security vulnerabilities in electronic voting, concluded that all the systems in use "have significant security and reliability vulnerabilities, which pose a real danger to the integrity" of elections.

The greatest vulnerability, according to the report, is that a software virus could be inserted into a voting machine to alter voter tallies.

The Brennan report notes that systems without paper trails -- a paper record or receipt that voters can use to confirm votes -- lack an important countermeasure to software attacks: the ability to compare paper to electronic records.

Lamone and the election board staff say the Brennan report, as well as those prepared by Rubin and other computer scientists, has sensationalized the issue, ignored practicalities and undermined voter confidence.

"People are so focused on these outlandish theories," Deputy Administrator Ross Goldstein said. "Our system combines security and usability in a very effective manner."

Maryland election officials say the state's system of "parallel testing" provides a better safeguard against tampering than a paper trail. Maryland is one of only three states using parallel testing, which involves selecting voting machines at random and testing them.

In the weeks before the election, election officials will pull machines from each jurisdiction and conduct a mock election, tabulating the results to ensure they match votes cast. Then, on Election Day, one machine will be pulled from each jurisdiction for similar testing, ensuring that some type of "Trojan horse" virus has not sprung to life, Goldstein said.

The Brennan report says this parallel testing is an effective method to find software-based attacks.

Lamone said the machines will be secured after inspection, sealed with tamper-resistant tape and closely monitored on Election Day. "With all the attention given this, I'm confident that someone would notice if anyone tried to muck around with it," she said.

The state has invested more than $90 million in a statewide system of 20,000 AccuVote-TS touch-screen machines. The machines were used for the 2004 election in Maryland. The state had a 0.3 percent residual vote rate -- votes that do not count because of voter error or other problems -- which tied for the lowest in an academic survey of 37 states in the 2004 election.

A bill introduced in the past session of the General Assembly and supported by Ehrlich would have provided $21.8 million for Maryland to replace the Diebold system with paper ballots read by optical scanners. But the elections board opposed the measure, saying the money was not adequate to make the switch and that the confusion could disrupt elections. The House passed the measure, but it died in the Senate.

Maryland election officials are continuing to resist the push for a system that provides a paper trail for future elections in favor of waiting for developing technologies that they say could further safeguard the balloting process.

A paper trail, they say, would not be a panacea. "In my mind, if you add a paper trail, you're going to end up with a lot more questions than answers," Goldstein said. Discrepancies might arise from comparing computer tallies to hand-counted paper receipts, which could be subject to human error.

Nonetheless, elected officials say they believe voters might not be satisfied without a paper trail.

"What people want, and where the legislature is headed, is some kind of paper trail," Franchot said. "I don't believe we're going to have the paper trail for this election, but we're clearly moving in that direction."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company