Securing A Paper Trail

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 2003-10-02 Print this article Print

The absence of serious security for voting systems means the controversy surrounding California's recall election and other contests is far from over.

Securing A Paper Trail
A key issue is the lack of a paper trail created by the popular touch-screen Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) machines, at least as they are commonly configured.

Adding a printer to the DRE machines is easy, but it also adds large, ongoing costs, including paper and printing expenses, as well as maintenance headaches. Riverside County, Calif., estimates savings of $500,000 to $600,000 per election since eliminating paper three years ago.

"I want a voter-verifiable paper trail that cannot be contaminated, but as a techie I know that adding a printer adds moving parts, and boxes that break down," says Yolo County's Stanionis. "That is a concern for me. I'd like to have a voter-verifiable paper trail that is consistent and easy to maintain."

There are also questions about the commitment to security of vendors, especially industry leader North Canton, Ohio-based Diebold Inc., which along with rivals Sequoia Voting Systems and Election Systems & Software Inc., controls more than two-thirds of the voting machine market.

Software code used by Diebold voting machines was posted by writer Bev Harris at a Web site called www.blackboxvoting.org, along with memos indicating that Diebold knows it has security problems. Meanwhile, a study released this summer by professors at Johns Hopkins and Rice was highly critical of the 33,000 Diebold voting machines already installed across the country.

The company's image was not helped by a recent fund-raising letter to Ohio Republicans from Diebold Chief Executive Officer Walden O'Dell, who wrote that he is "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President next year." Diebold did not return repeated calls for comment.

"Vendors want their systems to be mysterious," says Stanionis. "It's a pretense of security based on the fact the system is secure, with no visible flaws. But I want to hack and have it all open."

California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley asked a task force to look at concerns about voting technology, including questions about the need for a paper trail with electronic systems. He received a report from the task force, but it was compiled before these latest revelations about Diebold's performance emerged.

Still, many California counties say they are comfortable with machines that do not show voters a paper copy of their ballot, then save it for use if needed in a recount or other dispute. Orange County, which has more than 1.3 million registered voters and used its existing optical scan system for the recall election, will in March unveil new DRE machines from vendor Hart InterCivic. The new machines will not provide paper records, says Angela Burrell, a spokesperson for the Orange County registrar of voters.

In Riverside County, Registrar of Voters Mischelle Townsend calls the $13.8 million spent on 4,250 Edge DRE touch-screen machines from Sequoia a wise investment, in large part because of the savings on paper and printing ballots. The recall election was the twentieth in which the Southern California county's electronic machines were used, dating back to the 2000 presidential election.

The savings matter a lot as Riverside, like other localities, searches for funds for law enforcement and other basic services. Paper ballots must be printed for all registered voters, but many end up going unused. "It grieved me as a taxpayer to print all the ballots that we destroyed after an election with only 50% turnout," says Townsend.

Riverside County's voting machines displayed the 135-candidate recall ballot on seven separate screens. Candidate names were randomly distributed, as required by law, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Cruz Bustamante appearing by chance on the same page. In Santa Clara County, where punch card voting was used, voters got a booklet that rearranged the alphabet at random, then listed candidates alphabetically on the page that the initial letter of their last name happened to appear.

Voter satisfaction with the touch-screen machines is extremely high, says Townsend, and security is not a concern. "There is no hue and cry from the electorate for a written receipt," she says. "Only a few academics are asking for paper verification."

Not so, says Oakley. "I'm a very strong believer in paper trail," she says. "We're anxious to move to more efficient technology, but we need the ability to audit, and there is no way to guarantee an independent audit without an independent paper trail. As an accounting principle, just pushing the red button and seeing the flash card again is not enough."

Ignoring the risk of tampering with electronic machines is "craziness," she says. "Election officials are very naïve about technology. I'm not paranoid, but I do believe that 18-year-olds are sitting at home in their camouflage jammies, hacking these things." Stanionis, her technical guru, concurs. "If Diebold sells half a million voting machines, one machine is going to be sitting in someone's garage in two weeks," he says.

Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.

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