D.C. Council hearing sums up election: Poor training and preparation

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010; 9:32 PM

District residents and elections officials testified Friday that inadequate training and harried preparations marred the city's primary elections last month. But those officials and a key legislator expressed confidence that the problems would largely be resolved for the Nov. 2 general election.

A D.C. Council hearing examined the Sept. 14 performance of the city's Board of Elections and Ethics, which was heavily criticized for late openings of polls, poll-worker confusion and a painfully slow vote count that did not deliver meaningful results until after midnight.

"We had an election that was, in my eyes, materially flawed," said D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who convened the hearing. "But at the end of the day, when we got the votes . . . we had a successful election."

Rokey W. Suleman II, the board's executive director, sought to emphasize that he and his staff had been charged by the council with implementing numerous reforms and equipment changes in a matter of months. The primary, he said, "went well with everything that we had to do."

In a report delivered to the council, Suleman said that the D.C. Council loaded too many changes onto the board at once.

"We do wish that some reforms had been delayed," read a preliminary report delivered to the board Wednesday. "While reform is a necessary and important thing, it does not follow that every reform should be implemented at once. . . . We succeeded, but at great cost, and the election did not go nearly as smoothly as we would have wanted."

Suleman took more direct aim at his harshest critics: "If I were to part the Red Sea, they would be complaining about dead fish."

Suleman became defensive at times during nearly two hours of testimony, as he was pressed by Cheh to respond to the allegations of witnesses who described poll workers who were unable to open the new voting machines at the beginning of the day or close them at night. Several testified that workers' calls to election headquarters for support went unanswered.

Independent poll watchers from Demos, a nonpartisan think tank, found that elections officials "confronted a formidable challenge in implementing a whole variety of election changes in a high-profile, high-turnout primary election" and "performed fairly well." But the report did blame "malfunctioning hardware and software, inadequate poll-worker training, and insufficient public education and voter instruction" for contributing to difficulties.

Changes are in store for the general election. Precinct captains will be given a $140 bonus if they attend an all-day training class and meet performance targets, Suleman said, and documentation and forms have been improved.

The day's most dramatic moments concerned the public testing of a "digital vote by mail" system that was intended to allow about 950 overseas voters to cast absentee ballots over the Internet.

The board invited computer experts to test the system's vulnerabilities starting last week, and a University of Michigan electrical engineering and computer science professor, J. Alex Halderman, infiltrated the system with his graduate students during the trial period. At the hearing, Halderman described how they had control over the system, allowing them to monitor incoming votes and change votes for two days before being discovered.

Halderman, who had written about the invasion in a blog posting earlier in the week, revealed more at the hearing, including that his team was able to take control of key routing equipment in the voting system. That gave them access to, among other things, security cameras in a server room at board headquarters. (After his testimony, Halderman showed a reporter live video from the room, streaming to his iPhone.)

"This could easily have given us a totally separate second way to steal votes," he testified.

Halderman also reported that while he and his students were inside, they detected hackers from China and Iran prodding the system. They chose to modify a firewall and change the password to keep the would-be infiltrators out.

Halderman also revealed a more-serious security breach: A document containing names and addresses of the more than 900 voters eligible for the Internet voting trial was left on the test server, he testified, along with crucial ID numbers that would have allowed hackers to request and complete ballots. In a theatrical moment, Halderman opened a cardboard box he'd brought with him and pulled out a printout of the 953-page document.

"This was the biggest shock we've had in a very long time," Halderman said after testifying. "It's sort of the crown jewels of the security for the real election."

The board announced Monday that it was canceling the part of the system that would allow the return of completed ballots over the Internet but it said it would continue using the system to deliver ballots to overseas voters.

Experts, including Halderman, counseled Cheh to end the program altogether, but Suleman defended the effort to establish a workable Internet voting option for overseas voters. "This is a community good," he said, "and I think what we're doing is going to benefit the nation."

"I'm just worried about doing this ourselves with money that could be used for other things," Cheh said. "I think we ought to stop it, frankly."

Suleman persisted, asking for the chance to "build a better mousetrap."

"NASA did not get to the moon," he said, "without exploding a few rockets on the launchpad."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company