updated 8/21/2006 1:15:00 PM ET 2006-08-21T17:15:00

For the first time, all votes cast in Minnesota's fall elections will be electronically counted.

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In past elections, about 80 percent of Minnesotans have voted using optical scan voting machines. But the growing reliance on electronic voting machines has prompted debate among experts about accuracy and the possibility of tampering.

Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer expresses confidence about the full-scale electronic vote counting. She points to the 2004 election, where the error rates of electronically counted ballots was nearly zero. By contrast, she said, counties that counted ballots by hand had an error rate of about 1.5 percent.

Voters in 83 of Minnesota's 87 counties will use electronic machines made by Election Systems & Software of Omaha, Neb. The rest will use machines made by Ohio-based Diebold Inc.

Optimistic election auditor
"I don't foresee anything (bad) happening. But then, this is our first run with it," said Grant County Auditor Chad Van Santen. His staff used to hand-count ballots from the county's 4,200 registered voters.

While critics of electronic voting can't point to a case of a U.S. election being compromised by hackers, they say there is a long list of elections marred by faulty programming, mechanical failure or human error.

Trustworthiness questioned
"Is it even possible to ensure the trustworthiness of the hardware and software in a voting system? My opinion is no," said David Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford University and a critic of electronic voting.

"The security standards are practically worthless, as is the certification process," Dill said. "At the end of the day, that computer is no more trustworthy than if you had one person count all the ballots with nobody watching."

After the election debacle that left the presidency in doubt in 2000, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which required all states to switch to electronic voting machines. The federal government set aside more than $1 billion to pay for the conversion, including about $31 million for Minnesota.

Minnesota's system does have safeguards, including the retention of original paper ballots and a mandatory hand recount in random precincts.

There are only two companies nationwide certified by the federal government to act as an independent testing authority for voting machine software. SysTest Labs of Denver is one of them.

SysTest president Brian Phillips said analysts review more than 1.5 million lines of computer source code. While analysts often find mistakes or poorly written code, Phillips said they've never found an attempt to rig an election by hiding malicious commands in the software.

He said dishonest election officials pose a greater threat than hackers.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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