Vote, with No Confidence

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 2003-10-02
The voting machines that almost derailed the Oct. 7 California recall election are all being replaced. But controversy over voting technology is far from finished in the Golden State—or the rest of the country. For local officials in charge of election systems, the headaches are just beginning.

The absence of a clear, unshakable policy on the security of voting systems makes a widespread fix for the ills of paper ballots unlikely for years to come. Meanwhile, cost concerns are leading election officials to do away with paper completely, opting for touch-screen machines and the like. But that choice eliminates the printouts and paper trail that could safeguard against possible fraud.

"There isn't a system that has all I want" in terms of security, cost and ease of maintenance, says Tom Stanionis, head of data processing for Yolo County, near Sacramento. Yet he says he is being rushed into choosing new machines.

Punch-card machines will no longer be certified by the state of California for use in the 2004 presidential primary next spring. California, other states and federal lawmakers want systems to be introduced that count votes more reliably than the equipment that left chads hanging, pregnant, and otherwise imperfectly processed in the 2000 presidential election.

The old machines, said by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to be "intractably afflicted with technologic dyscalculia,'' were used by six counties that are home to 44% of California voters.

Each of California's 58 counties chooses its own voting machines from a list of equipment certified for use by the California Secretary of State. California's Proposition 41 and federal law, however, are forcing counties to make changes, even when they are satisfied with what they've got.

"Any system that is certified is on equal footing with others," says Terri Carbaugh, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State. "Vendors then compete on the county level for procurement."

Freddie Oakley, county clerk-recorder in Yolo County, says she will have to abandon working voting systems or lose the federal and state funding.

Yolo County uses an older system called Datavote, a paper-card system counted by an old-fashioned IBM card reader. Oakley finds it reliable, but federal funding for new machines of that type has ended. "Congress lumped them in with the pre-scored cards [the kind with the punch-out chads], which is not real bright, but then bright is not we'd expect," says Oakley.

Yet questions abound as to the security and accuracy of the new electronic voting machines being adopted by many counties.

"We are going from the frying pan into fire," says Peter G. Neumann, principal scientist at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif., of the forced march from punch-card machines to touch-screen electronic voting.

Neumann, a pioneer in the field of risk analysis for complex systems, says state certification is no guarantee that voting machines are safe from tampering. "They've been certified against lame standards," he says.

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, 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.Addresses Safe Voting Procedures">
How Freddie Oakley Addresses Safe Voting Procedures

  • INSIST on strict audit practice, such as a verifiable paper trail, not just on reducing paper costs.
  • EXPECT attempts to tamper with systems to be widespread, not exceptional behavior.
  • INVEST in technology to add security, such as printers for electronic voting machines, even if more maintenance involved.
  • RESIST regulatory and legislative pressure to cut corners on security. Freddie Oakley is the County Clerk-Recorder in Yolo County, Calif.