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Fight over e-voting leaves election plans as casualties

Voters brace for confusion at the polls as county election officials scramble to address alleged shortcomings of new equipment.

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By Robert Lemos and Paul Festa
CNET News.com

Riverside County, Calif., has bet millions of dollars on high technology to secure the future of its elections, but officials are now discovering that there won't necessarily be a payoff anytime soon.

The county, in Southern California just east of San Diego, signed on early to adopt touch screen voting machines, known officially as direct recording electronic, or DRE, systems. But despite using them in 29 elections over four years, Riverside County may not be able to use them the next time around, because of objections from state election officials.

Riverside County is not alone. Across the country, election overseers are now asking tough questions about electronic voting systems, which were sold on the promise of delivering more-accurate results than earlier methods, such as the punch-card approach that led to the hanging-chad controversy during the 2000 presidential election.

Now, several states with counties that have already spent millions of dollars installing new equipment are making last-minute decisions on the fate of devices—a situation that's already sowing new confusion to rival the old. Turning up the heat even further, political experts said, are the prospects of another close presidential race, one that could come down to a small number of votes in a handful of key districts.

"It adds a huge amount of uncertainty, and a whole level and new types of scrutiny that states will be applying," said Michael Alvarez, professor of political science at the California Institute of Technology. "E-voting machines can only work if people have trust in them, and if we are in a situation where we lack trust, then we aren't going to benefit."

As irregularities in the voting machines' software and hardware continue to surface, state governments and voter groups are lashing out at the makers of the devices, saying the companies have not followed through on assurances that they would provide federally certified systems. The battle, which has left county election officials scrambling for answers, threatens confusion at the polls, which would leave voters as the ultimate victims.

Fears about the security of the e-voting software could derail plans that, until recently, called for as many as 48 million Americans, or about 31 percent of the electorate, to cast their ballots on e-voting systems, according to Election Data Services, a company that conducts research on voting. The fears come from computer scientists who, though they've long been worried about the security and integrity of voting systems, had failed to raise widespread awareness about the issue until the past year.

Now, several states, including California and Indiana, that makers of election machines did not gain federal certification for the March election and likely will not be certified in time for the Nov. 4 presidential vote. Moreover, security concerns regarding the systems and software have become louder as security experts gain increasing access to what they declare are unsafe systems.

In other states, the effort to restrict use of the machines is well under way. In Maryland, for example, the legislature is considering a bill that would require paper-based verification of DRE votes, and a group last month in order to force the issue.

Nationwide, more than a dozen states are considering or have signed into law bills that mandate the use of a voter-verified paper audit trail, and Congress is considering a that would do the same.

No guarantees
Computer scientists argue that state governments and county election officials, spooked by the problems of paper ballots and hanging chads, have rushed blindly toward unproven alternatives. Pointing to numerous glitches that have plagued e-voting elections in the past four years, the security experts maintain that the integrity of e-votes cannot be guaranteed.

"If we go with the electronic voting machines and we have a close election, we will have no way of knowing with any certainty who won," said Avi Rubin, associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. Rubin, an expert on the security of e-voting machines, has repeatedly testified that an audit trail of paper receipts is necessary. "People want to avoid the hanging-chad problems, but to just throw away the paper ballots isn't the solution."

Such reservations have only recently come to the forefront of the debate, giving counties little time to react to a fast-growing backlash.

On April 30, responding to fears about the security of e-voting machines, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley took the drastic step of banning the use of one maker's touch-screen voting machines and revoking the certification of DRE systems used in other California counties. The decision affects 14 of California's 58 counties, including Riverside County, which had intended to use DREs on Election Day.

The counties now have to fulfill more-stringent requirements and provide additional training for poll workers if they're to use e-voting systems. Even then, the order from the secretary of state is open-ended, leaving the county with an uncertain future, said Mischelle Townsend, the registrar of voters for Riverside County.

"We don't want to return to a less-accurate, less-accessible paper ballot system; it invites further complications in terms of poll worker training and voter education," she said. "We are confident that we will be using our DRE voting systems. We just don't know what kinds of terms and conditions we will have to comply with."

Riverside County election officials against the secretary of state in early May, calling on courts to void the decertification. Meanwhile, Shelley has given the counties until early June to decide whether their election officials want to try to use the systems for the presidential vote.

Despite the brouhaha, some counties are already seeing their way clear of the confusion. Orange County is well on the way to having its systems, made by Hart InterCivic, re-certified by the secretary of state without having to equip the machines with printers capable of creating a paper trail, said Brett Rowley, legislative analyst and public information officer for the county. Instead, California will require the county to have enough paper ballots on hand to allow people to vote the old-fashioned way.

Good times, chad times
In the end, voting machines may have changed since the last presidential election, but many of the same uncertainties over the accuracy of voting systems remain.

DRE voting came to more widespread attention starting with the notorious failure of its paper-based punch card competitor in the 2000 presidential vote in Florida. That vote, which was ultimately decided by 537 votes out of 5,963,110 cast, included a number of counties that used electronic voting systems, among them some that reported potentially consequential glitches.

But the images that impressed themselves most deeply on voters, legislators and election officials were of butterfly paper ballots that produced thousands of votes for Pat Buchanan in heavily Jewish precincts, and of volunteers recounting paper punch-card ballots, struggling to divine voter intent out of tiny paper cut-outs called chads that were variously described as "pregnant" or "hanging," and which left thousands of ballots open to interpretation.

America, had a voting problem, its lawmakers decided, and technology could solve it.

Two years after the Florida debacle, President Bush signed the Help America Vote Act, which uses incentives to encourage states and counties to upgrade their elections equipment from punch card and lever machines.

Under that law, the federal government provided money for the states to purchase new systems. It removed some elections oversight from the and handed it to a new entity called the Election Assistance Commission, which began work in January and held a hearing on the e-voting controversy May 5.

The home of the hanging chad, Broward County, Fla., is a prime example of why Rubin and others are skeptical about how much integrity electronic voting adds to an election.

In a January 2004 special election for the Florida House of Representatives, in which votes were case with electronic equipment, the ballots of 134 voters went unrecorded, according to reports in The Miami Herald. The mysterious undercount made a difference in the election of a district seat: The winner in that race won by a mere 12 votes.

Creating a better system
From Maryland to California and from Mississippi to Ohio, reports of machine failures and undercounts have caused states to cast a critical eye on voting machines. In particular, a key argument among security researchers—that e-voting machines need a better way of checking whether the system correctly recorded the ballots cast—has gained more support. Critics claim that by providing no paper backup of votes cast, the systems don't allow for meaningful re-counts in close elections or spot checks to determine accuracy.

Two schemes have been proposed to solve the problem. Both would create two sets of ballots: one digital, for rapid counting, and the other paper-based, to allow for recounts and spot checks.

The first would let voters verify their votes using a printout that would be secured inside a plastic container attached to the voting machine. Once verified, the paper vote would then drop into a secure ballot box. The second method would create two receipts that would be encoded in a way so that, when they were laid over each other, showed the voter's choices.

Without these types of paper-based backups, the systems invite fraud and permit error that will escape detection, critics of the current crop of DRE machines maintain.

The rebuttals to such claims are indicative of just how heated the debate has become.

"There has never been a single verified case, in Pennsylvania or elsewhere in the United States, of the results of an election being altered by manipulation of DREs," Michael Shamos, a Carnegie Mellon computer scientist and longtime voting systems analyst, said recently in testimony before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. "No one has ever developed a credible scenario under which even an insider could alter votes on a DRE in a way that would evade detection."

Security experts counter that no one can prove an election has been rigged because there's no verified way to check the voting.

"You can't tell if we have had fraud because you can't tell whether the machines have recorded the correct vote," said Peter Neumann, principal scientist at SRI International and voting machine security researcher.

Shamos and other DRE defenders concede the machines have had problems over the years, even to the point that votes were irrevocably lost. But they argue that that doesn't make them worse than paper ballots, which can be intentionally altered, lost or accidentally destroyed.

"Paper records in voting are generally not worth the paper they're printed on," Shamos told the Pennsylvania House.

Despite a spirited defense by voting machine vendors, advocates for the disabled and some computer scientists, the DRE is losing crucial battles as the push for paper-based verification gains traction.

The Diebold effect
Arguably, the movement to ban paperless DREs has been propelled most significantly by the missteps of the industry's biggest player. More than any other company, any voting setup or any individual election fiasco, the subject of Diebold Election Systems has dominated the rancorous debate over electronic voting.

The company, a McKinney, Texas-based subsidiary of automated teller machine and payment card maker Diebold, has produced a virtually unbroken string of publicity fiascos over the past several months. The company's chief executive, Walden O'Dell, singed the company with controversy when he promised in a Republican fundraising letter to "help deliver Ohio's electoral votes to President Bush."

In January 2003, voting activist and researcher Bev Harris found Diebold's source code unprotected on an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) server. That provided critics with both an embarrassing security oversight and the software itself with which to attack the company. A few months later, a hard drive's worth of Diebold's internal e-mail was leaked, revealing damaging details of the company's security procedures and lack of confidence in its own products.

Diebold Election Systems President Bob Urosevich last month to combine mea culpas with defenses before the state's voting panel, but he only seemed to the panel's members. Members pronounced themselves "disgusted" with Diebold, a sentiment echoed by Shelley, who in releasing his findings described Diebold's actions as "reprehensible."

Shelley's decertification of DRE voting machines in California has been hailed by activists as a prod that will move the nation, and the world, toward more secure voting.

"Kevin Shelley's decision to pull back on touch screens is having an impact nationwide and internationally," said Kim Alexander, president of the . "E-voting is at risk in other countries, including India, Ireland, Spain and England. California is a place where political and technological trends emerge, and the nation and world pay attention."

But for election officials in the Golden State, the shift has been difficult. After having found what they see as the answer to election problems, they don't relish the idea of returning to old methods.

"If there is no intervention, and we cannot use our touch-screen machines...we are prepared for that," said Ann Barnett, registrar of voters for Kern County, which has joined Riverside County's lawsuit. "It is not necessarily going to be confusing—it is going to be a step backward."

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