E-Voting Commission Gets Earful

R. A. Hettinga rah at shipwright.com
Thu May 6 19:39:51 PDT 2004


Wired News

E-Voting Commission Gets Earful 
By Michael Grebb?

Story location: http://www.wired.com/news/evote/0,2645,63349,00.html

02:00 AM May. 06, 2004 PT

WASHINGTON -- Passions ran high Wednesday at the first public hearing of
the Election Assistance Commission, where activists and manufacturers of
electronic voting machines clashed over whether new e-voting systems should
include a voter-verifiable paper trail that auditors could use to recount
votes if necessary.

 The newly formed commission, which is just beginning to oversee the
certification of voting systems and the standardization of elections across
the country, held its first meeting to examine the state of elections and
voting systems. The commissioners were collecting testimony from
special-interest groups, election officials, computer scientists and
voting-machine makers.

 But the commission's chairman said he didn't expect the bipartisan panel
would issue national standards requiring paper receipts when it makes
preliminary recommendations next week, followed by more detailed guidelines
next month.

 "We will not decide on what machines people will buy," said the chairman,
Republican DeForest B. Soaries Jr., saying it wasn't the panel's role to
tell states what to do. "We will say, if California wants to have a backup
paper system, what national standards it should follow."

 At least 20 states are considering legislation to require a paper record
of every vote cast after rushing to get ATM-like voting machines to replace
paper ballots in the wake of Florida's fiasco with hanging chads in the
2000 presidential election. About 50 million people, or 29 percent of
voters, are expected to vote electronically in November's election.

 Representatives from the machine makers tried to convince commissioners
that paperless e-voting systems are not only safe and accurate, but more so
than paper-based systems.

 Mark Radke, director of marketing at Diebold Election Systems, said
Diebold's touch-screen voting systems experienced "zero security problems"
during the November 2002 elections, pointing out that its "voice guidance"
audio feature allowed blind voters "to vote in private for the very first
time." (With paper-only systems, blind voters historically have needed to
recite their ballot choices to a poll worker or friend, who would then mark
the ballot for them.)

 Radke also said Diebold's machines outperformed other systems during the
California recall elections in October. He claimed that under-counted votes
were the lowest on Diebold touch screens, at 0.73 percent, compared with
2.86 percent for optical-scan systems, 4.6 percent for other electronic
systems and 6.32 percent for paper-only systems.

 Alfie Charles, spokesman for Sequoia Voting Systems, said the
"sensationalized concerns" of paper-trail advocates aren't grounded in

 "The evidence is pretty clear," he said. "Electronic systems help prevent

 Several panelists also pointed out that the pool of people able to hack
into an e-voting system is far smaller than those able to steal ballots,
stuff the ballot box or punch holes in voting cards to change or nullify
votes. Under that theory, electronic systems would increase security.

 "We would reduce the number of people capable of committing fraud,"
Charles said.

 But Avi Rubin, a Johns Hopkins University computer scientist who helped
author a report last July about security vulnerabilities in Diebold's
touch-screen voting system, warned that paperless systems could allow savvy
intruders to rig an election. He said corporations supporting a particular
presidential candidate who is friendly to their needs would have billions
at stake to make sure their candidate won.

 "We've got very well-funded and bad-intentioned adversaries to worry
about," he said.

 Rubin said while paper trails are needed for the November election, "in
the long, long term we should explore other cryptographic options and other
electronic techniques" to someday run secure, paperless elections.

 At a press conference and rally outside the hearing, a crowd of supporters
cheered when California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley took the podium.

 On Friday, Shelley banned the use of one model of Diebold's voting
machines in four California counties, and decertified all touch-screen
systems unless counties that own them implement 23 security requirements.
At least one county is filing suit against Shelley for his actions, and
others may follow.

 Supervisors in Riverside County voted unanimously Tuesday to sue Shelley,
California's top election official, to remove the ban on their machines,
saying his ruling would harm disabled and visually impaired voters who have
been able to vote unassisted for the first time using touch-screen machines
that guide them through the ballot with audio directions.

 Shelley charged that Diebold aggressively marketed its TSx system to
voting officials in the four counties, even though the systems were not
fully tested, qualified by federal officials or certified at the state
level. Diebold finally finished federal testing of the TSx on April 21.

 Still, Shelley told supporters that he worries most about unsecured
systems vulnerable to hackers.

 "We have seen that a bunch of high-school students can hack in and change
thousands of votes," he said. "We cannot have that." He said he had
received several reports of high-school hackers attempting to penetrate
e-voting systems, but didn't give specific examples.

 One of his representatives also cited an incident in which touch-screen
systems went down in a few jurisdictions during the October recall
election. Elderly poll workers at one location didn't know what to do, so
they asked some teenagers who happened to be there to reboot the machines
for them -- an obvious opportunity to commit mischief under the right

 Several witnesses at the hearing, including Shelley, recommended better
training for poll workers, who may need basic computer skills to fix
technical problems on Election Day.

 Brit Williams, a computer science professor and election expert at
Kennesaw State University near Atlanta, advocated adopting a single
national standard for voting software to ensure security and ease training
for poll workers.

 Other commissioners seemed worried that poll workers would become too
reliant on vendors to fix Election Day snafus. Some experts have said that
the most likely hacking scenario for machines would be inside jobs from
system programmers or the vendors themselves.

 But Denise Lamb, director of elections in New Mexico, told the panel that
any polling place that experienced a severe software or hardware problem
would most likely shut down rather than call in a vendor to fix the
problem. For minor glitches, she said most vendors provide telephone

 Activists outside the hearing, however, were not reassured.

 "This is a high-stakes election, and we have to get it right," said Linda
Schade, director of Campaign for Verifiable Voting in Maryland, a group
that advocates a voter-verified paper trail for electronic systems rather
than "rickety, backward new voting machines."

 The group has already sued the state of Maryland in an effort to decertify
the Diebold touch-screen machines that officials implemented statewide last

 Rep. Rush Holt (D-New Jersey) took the podium to drum up support for his
Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act (HR2239), which would
require all voting machines to produce a paper record.

 "(Paperless e-voting machines) are in principle unverifiable," he said.
"Your intentions cannot be recovered."

 As Holt wrapped up his comments, Jim Dickson, spokesman for the American
Association of People With Disabilities, stepped forward and complained
that Holt's bill would threaten to undo protections for disabled voters
contained in the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

 Dickson, who is blind, said that voting with assistance can be a
humiliating experience, particularly when the poll worker helping you
doesn't agree with your choices.

 "They have said, 'You're voting for who?'" he said, mimicking the
sarcastic voice of a poll worker. He charged that Holt's bill -- by not
setting a deadline for new e-voting machines to accommodate disabled voters
-- would put off those protections indefinitely.

 Holt quickly clarified that his bill wouldn't take away such protections.

 While the sides squared off in Washington, D.C., senators in California
approved a bill to ban all e-voting in the state in November. The
bipartisan bill passed the state Senate Committee on Elections and
Reapportionment with a 3-1 vote and will now go to the Senate floor.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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