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E-voting debate: Can we trust computers?

A growing number of federal and state legislators are expressing doubts about the integrity of the ATM-like electronic voting machines that at least 50 million Americans will use to cast their ballots in November.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A growing number of federal and state legislators are expressing doubts about the integrity of the ATM-like electronic voting machines that at least 50 million Americans will use to cast their ballots in November.

Computer scientists have long criticized the so-called touchscreen machines as not being much more reliable than home computers, which can crash, malfunction and fall prey to hackers and viruses.

Now, a series of failures in primaries across the nation has shaken confidence in the technology installed at thousands of precincts. Despite reassurances from the machines' makers, at least 20 states have introduced legislation requiring a paper record of every vote cast.

On Thursday, a key California panel unanimously recommended banning a popular Diebold Inc. paperless touchscreen model -- a move that could force Diebold and other manufacturers to overhaul their business practices nationwide. Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, who said Diebold glitches "jeopardized the outcome" of the March 2 primary, has until April 30 to decide whether to decertify Diebold and possibly other touchscreen terminals in California.

The head of a newly created federal agency charged with overseeing electronic voting called Diebold's problems "deeply troubling." The bipartisan U.S. Election Assistance Commission, formed in January to develop technical standards for electronic voting, will conduct a May 5 public hearing in Washington, D.C.

"We wanted to jump into this issue in time to impact November's election," said agency director DeForest B. Soaries, Jr. "There are so many troubling issues that have emerged surrounding electronic voting and so much money has been spent since 2000 on converting to electronic voting systems that it requires our attention -- particularly because many states assume the computer is the solution."

Even a top Diebold executive acknowledged this week that the systems are not foolproof, as he apologized for primary-day failures and the fact that his company installed uncertified software in counties across California.

'The Computer Ate My Vote.'
"We're not idiots, though we may act from time to time as not the smartest," Diebold President Robert J. Urosevich told California regulators investigating the company's performance.

Several California voting registrars expressed support this week for Diebold's questionable equipment, insisting they could not junk millions of dollars worth of touchscreen terminals, install a new system and train poll workers by the Nov. 2 general election. But dozens of protesters demonstrated Thursday at the North Canton, Ohio-based company's annual shareholder meeting, many sporting T-shirts that read, "The Computer Ate My Vote."

Although Diebold is the most embattled voting equipment company, computer scientists say paperless systems made by Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. and other competitors also expose elections to malicious attack, software glitches and mechanical errors that could delete or alter millions of ballots.

The scientists' concerns have moved from theoretical to real in recent months as hundreds of counties nationwide upgrade from punch card and lever systems to computers in hopes of avoiding a hanging chad debacle like the one that affected the outcome of the Florida 2000 presidential election.

Indiana discovered problems this week with equipment made by Election Systems & Software Inc., which apparently installed uncertified software in five counties without notifying the state's election commission.

In presidential primaries last month, modem problems delayed vote counts in Maryland, and a power surge made the wrong screens appear on at least half of San Diego County's touchscreens, preventing an unknown number of voters from casting ballots.

Because votes that only exist in electronic form can be altered or deleted, Oregon, New Hampshire and Illinois require paper ballots; and California, Missouri and Nevada will require paper backups on touchscreen terminals by 2006.

Secretaries of state in Washington and West Virginia are calling for paper trails, while Ohio is reconsidering the switch to new machines, according to the Washington-based Election Reform Information Project.

Hanging-chad nostalgia?
It's probably too late for anyone to switch from electronic voting systems before November. But many computing experts are trying to persuade counties to scrap the more than 100,000 touchscreens already installed -- and to overhaul how voting software is developed.

"The worst-case scenario is that, come November, we're going to have nostalgia for what happened in Florida, which at least had an appearance of an attempt to do the right thing with people trying to recount ballots," said Avi Rubin, a Johns Hopkins University computer expert. "We weren't certain of the voter's intention on a hanging chad ballot, but we're going to end up with a situation where we're not sure of any of the ballots if the system is paperless."

The harshest e-voting critics say simply adding printers to touchscreens may not safeguard elections. They're urging companies to publish the voting software online, for all to see.

They said the transparency of so-called open source code would help engineers make hacker-proof software, and thereby restore voter confidence.

"Open source is the only way to build robust systems that people can believe in," said Ed Cherlin, a Silicon Valley engineer with the nonprofit Open Voting Consortium.

The consortium's prototype relies on familiar desktop PCs and produces paper versions of every ballot cast, which can be reviewed by voters at the polls and then stored in county lock boxes. The operating system is Linux -- not Microsoft Windows, which most voting terminals rely on.

"Electronic voting in its current form is like hiring a private company to count votes behind closed doors," said Stanford University professor David Dill, who publishes a Web site called Verified Voting.

Big voting equipment companies share only pieces of their code with federal election workers and secretaries of state. The companies say citizens -- and the hundreds of county election officials who buy their equipment -- should trust that their voting systems are secure.

"Not to take away from the security folks who have a wealth of knowledge of technology, but most of them will admit they don't have a wealth of understanding for election procedures," said Diebold spokesman David Bear. "Federal and state governments have an understanding of the software and the election policy and procedures."

But few people believe that any voting system will ever be 100 percent accurate. Problems similar to San Diego's on March 2 -- where 573 of 1,038 polling places failed to open on time because of computer malfunctions -- are apt to recur.