Worse to Come in Fall Elections, Officials Fear

By Christian Davenport, Miranda S. Spivack and Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 15, 2006

As officials investigated the human errors that disrupted Maryland's primary election, there were renewed fears yesterday that electronic malfunctions could cause even greater problems in November.

Computer scientists at Princeton University released a study, including a video, that demonstrated how they were able to hack into the type of electronic voting machines used in Maryland and install malicious software that could sway an election. The machines' manufacturer swiftly denounced the study as "unrealistic and inaccurate."

Meanwhile, frustrated election judges and voters continued to report widespread trouble with voting apparatuses during Tuesday's primary -- machines that froze, access cards that stopped working and computerized voter lists that crashed. The glitches led to long lines at many polling places and caused some voters to worry that their ballots had not been recorded properly, if at all.

After the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida, many states overhauled their voting systems and abandoned paper ballots. Maryland has spent $106 million over the past four years on new voting technology. Since 2002, four counties, including Montgomery and Prince George's, have used the Diebold AccuVote-TS voting machines. This year, they were used in every jurisdiction and are planned for use in the general election.

But election watchdogs have long cautioned that the machines are vulnerable to manipulation and failure -- and critics pointed yesterday to the Princeton study as the latest evidence.

Edward W. Felten, a professor of computer science and public affairs, said that he and two of his graduate students spent several months studying a Diebold AccuVote-TS voting machine. They were easily able to break into the machine and insert malicious software, he said.

"The malicious code can steal votes in a manner that's undetectable or nearly undetectable," Felten said. "And the code can spread like a virus from one machine to another."

In their study, made public Wednesday, the trio said they obtained the machine from "a private party." Felten declined to elaborate.

In the video, which has been widely distributed on the Internet, Felten and his students showed how they were able to sway a mock election between Benedict Arnold and George Washington. Washington won the election 4 to 1. But the computer scientists said they were able to manipulate the machine's software so that it reported a 3 to 2 victory for Arnold.

"We think it's plausible a clever person could steal an election with this kind of attack," Felten said. "It's not a Manhattan Project. It's something one or two competent programmers could do."

Dave Byrd, president of Diebold Election Systems in Allen, Tex., said the machine used in the Princeton study "has security software that was two generations old and to our knowledge is not used anywhere in the country."

"Normal security procedures were ignored" by Felten and the students, Byrd said. He added, "Numbered security tape, 18 enclosure screws and numbered security tags were destroyed or missing so that the researchers could get inside the unit."

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