Sunday, September 19, 2004

Ready or Not, Electronic Voting Goes National

The New York Times
September 19, 2004
Ready or Not, Electronic Voting Goes National

Just over six weeks before the nation holds the first general election in which touch-screen voting will play a major role, specialists agree that whatever the remaining questions about the technology's readiness, it is now too late to make any significant changes.

Whether or not the machines are ready for the election - or the electorate ready for the machines - there is no turning back. In what may turn out to be one of the most scrutinized general elections in the country's history, nearly one-third of the more than 150 million registered voters in the United States will be asked to cast their ballots on machines whose accuracy and security against fraud have yet to be tested on such a grand scale.

Because of the uncertainties, experts say there is potential for post-election challenges in any precincts where the machines may malfunction, or where the margin of victory is thin. Sorting out such disputes could prove difficult.

"The possibility for erroneous votes or malicious programming is not as great as critics would have you believe," said Doug Chapin, the director of, a nonpartisan group tracking election reform. "But it's more than defenders of the technology want to admit. The truth lies somewhere in between."

Since the 2000 presidential election and its contentious aftermath, voting systems that record votes directly on a computer - as opposed to those that use mechanical levers or optically scanned paper ballots - have quickly moved to the center of a rancorous debate. The disagreement pits those who see them as unacceptably vulnerable to vote manipulation and fraud against those who see them as an antidote to the wretched hanging chad.

Even in the final run-up to November's elections, the issue remains in flux. In California, the machines have been certified, decertified and recertified again. In Ohio, a closely contested state, an electronic upgrade to the state's predominantly punch-card system was halted in July by the secretary of state there, who cited unresolved security concerns.

All the while, a vocal mixture of computer scientists, local voting-rights groups and freelance civic gadflies have relentlessly cited security flaws in many of the machines, with some going so far as to say that the flaws could be intentional and accusing the major companies of having ties to conservative political causes.

The companies and election officials have fought back bitterly, accusing the activists of being wild-eyed fearmongers. A study released by last month would seem to suggest that partisan politics plays less of a role than critics have claimed.

That report found "no industrywide partisan trend to political contributions among the largest election system companies." The leader in the electronic voting machine market, Diebold, and its executives have given more than $400,000 to Republican interests since 2001, the study found. But other large companies, including Election Systems & Software and Sequoia Voting Systems, "gave a slight edge to Democratic candidates and party organizations."

Concerns over the security and accuracy of the machines have proved harder to dispel, though, and they have not always come from the fringe.

At the end of June, two prestigious groups - the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights - issued a set of recommendations for technical upgrades and procedures that they said could help shore up high-tech voting systems in time for the November elections.

Nancy Zirkin, the deputy director of the Leadership Conference, said she thought that the report had been taken seriously, but conceded that the group did not know how many states or precincts had actually adopted the recommendations.

Other critics say that too little has been done in response to numerous problems - and that it is now too late to do much more before the election, because software and technology have to be tested and "frozen" well ahead of voting to avoid malfunctions and electoral chaos.

"Switching now, approximately 40 days before the election, would probably introduce more security problems than it would avoid," said Aviel D. Rubin, a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University who brought many of the vulnerabilities in voting systems to light.

Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, is among those who wonder whether the technology is ready for prime time. As she tried out one of Maryland's new machines at a folk festival last weekend, an apparent slip of her hand generated a "no" vote when she intended to vote "yes," before the error was caught and corrected.

By last Monday, Ms. Mikulski had signed on to Senate legislation that would require all electronic voting terminals around the nation to generate a paper record for each vote. But there are no such capabilities in the AccuVote TS touch-screen systems that will be used throughout Maryland and in many other states that have adopted touch screens or other electronic voting devices. And it is too late to add them.

The Maryland system is far from foolproof, in the view of Michael Wertheimer, a computer security consultant with RABA Technologies, who was hired by the state of Maryland last year to conduct a mock hacking attack against the Diebold machines. A number of security holes were found, including one in the Microsoft operating system that runs the election software, which did not have up-to-date security patches. The flaws, Mr. Wertheimer said, could allow tampering and skewed election results.

He also noted that in the presidential primary election last March, Maryland used software on its machines that had not been certified by independent testing authorities, and thus violated state law.

But Linda Lamone, the administrator of the state's election laws, has repeatedly stated that her office has taken the necessary steps to improve the Diebold machines. She says that issues of uncertified software have been corrected and that Maryland's election system is secure.

The Maryland Court of Appeals appears to agree. On Tuesday, the court rejected a suit brought by a Maryland voter group, TrueVoteMD, which sought to force the state to further improve security on its machines and offer voters a paper-ballot alternative.

Still, as the days dwindle, paper remains at the heart of the debate.

Nevada, another state that will make near-universal use of touch-screen voting in November, purchased machines manufactured by Sequoia that produce a paper record - a move that received high marks earlier this month from the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative group in Washington. "Without an actual paper ballot, we are then left with only the computer's word for the election results," the group said in a news release accompanying its informal "Election Preparedness Scorecard" three weeks ago.

The group gave grades of F to several states - including Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware and Tennessee - based on their degree of reliance on paperless electronic voting. Florida, whose results will almost certainly receive intense scrutiny, received an F-plus, while Georgia was given an F-minus. New Mexico, a swing state that will rely heavily on touch-screen voting on Nov. 2, received a D-minus.

Harris N. Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, a trade group that represents many of the voting machine makers, concedes that the industry has probably not been sensitive enough to the political nuances surrounding voting technology - particularly in the aftermath of the 2000 election. But he argued that the fears expressed by many of those opposed to electronic voting are driven as much by ignorance as by passion.

"What we're replacing is a system that was broken - so broken that Congress passed a special law," he said, referring to the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which was designed to help overhaul the nation's election system in the aftermath of the 2000 debacle. "It was so broken that Congress appropriated over a billion dollars to fix it," he said.

The law, which established the Election Assistance Commission, generally encourages the movement away from punch cards and the exploration of other voting technologies. The law also calls for the federal standards agency, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, to develop universal standards for voting systems. But the agency says the $500,000 Congress appropriated last year for such efforts has been exhausted, and Congress did not provide additional funds for the effort in 2004.

As for security concerns, Mr. Miller said that vendors submit their source code - the underlying instructions for the machines' software - for independent inspection, to uncover any hidden programming and to ensure that the machines calculate properly.

Critics, however, point out that the labs inspecting the software are typically paid by the vendors themselves, and that they somehow failed to uncover the flaws discovered by Mr. Wertheimer, Professor Rubin, and election officials in Ohio, Maryland and elsewhere.

While it is too late in the game to make it possible to produce a paper record for each vote on every machine already deployed, Mr. Miller said that vendors would be willing to include that feature in the future if the market demanded it. Most of the major vendors have models that can supply a printed record, but in most cases, Mr. Miller said, election officials have not required it.

Paper receipts are not automatically required because no such universal guideline has ever existed. Mechanical lever machines, for instance, which have been in widespread use since the 1930's - and will still be used by millions of voters this year - have never produced a paper record of each vote. And states have traditionally established their own definitions of what constitutes a ballot.

Still, the scrutiny and criticism that have dogged electronic voting machines over the last year all but guarantee that a pall of suspicion and distrust will hang over a technology that awaits approximately 45 million registered voters if they go to the polls. Whether the concerns are justified or overblown, experts say, in the wake of the 2000 election controversy, the mere hint of unreliability this time could turn the electronic vote, should the margin of victory be narrow, into one more tinderbox.

"The woods aren't any drier than they were in 2000," Mr. Chapin of is fond of saying, "but there are a lot more people with matches."

That is a point that Edward S. Morillo, a representative of the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters in California, would probably concede. Mr. Morillo travels the county acquainting voters with the Sequoia AVC Edge, the voting machine that will be used there on Nov. 2.

On Wednesday afternoon, he stopped by the Indian Health Center in San Jose.

As patients and employees took turns poking at the screen, an occasional "What is it?" or "Oops!" seemed to foretell what ballot workers might expect on Election Day.

Mr. Morillo said that reactions to the touch screens have generally been mixed, and that Santa Clara County - like every California county where similar electronic voting is in place - would offer a paper ballot alternative for those who, for whatever reason, are not comfortable with the machines.

"The thing about the touch screen,'' he said, "is that you either love it or hate it."