Security Concerns

By Chris Gonsalves  |  Posted 2008-01-02

Electronic voting was supposed to solve the vexing balloting problems that plagued the 2000 presidential election. But as the 2008 primary season kicks off, many states are still wrestling with the accuracy and security of high-tech voting machines, and critics are calling for a return to paper ballots while the mess is sorted out.

Colorado this week became the latest state to pull the plug on electronic voting after election officials there deemed devices from several vendors unfit. Lack of password protection, programming errors and an error rate of better than 1 percent scuttled plans to use gear from Sequoia Voting Systems, Election Systems and Software, and Hart InterCivic, according to state officials.

"I was surprised," Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman told the Associated Press. "It's an awful position to be put in, but I feel strongly it's important that this equipment be secure and accurately count a vote."

Colorado isn't the only state caught throwing taxpayer money at election technology still in various stages of beta release. Shortly after the Florida election debacle of 2000 — the election that brought the expression "hanging chad" into the national vernacular— Congress passed the $3 billion "Help America Vote" initiative which requires all states to have electronic voting machines in place by 2010.

Computer technology has been employed for decades, largely to scan and compile votes made on manual punch cards. The electronic voting technology in question today however, obviates manual ballots in favor of touch-screens or employs optical scanners to tabulate votes. Almost since the current generation of voting gear arrived, critics have taken issue with systems that leave no permanent record of a vote and provide no way to audit an election if errors or fraud are suspected.

Matt Zimmerman, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation says many states rushed to comply with the federal mandates and are now forced to confront systems that may compromise the legitimacy of their elections.

"Nobody wanted to be the next Florida," Zimmerman says. "And that's what the vendors promised them."

What they got, however, was various collections of untested systems with problems that have become increasingly evident as the machines are used and tested, he says.

"It's pretty courageous that many states are taking the difficult step and getting rid of bad machines at this point," Zimmerman says.

Coffman said it's still unclear how Colorado which has spent some $41 million in federal grants to roll out new electronic voting gear for the state's 3 million registered voters, according to published reports —will count votes for its presidential caucuses, part of the Super Tuesday primaries on Feb. 5. Coffman tells the AP that state and county officials are considering mail-in ballots or traditional paper ballots at polling places.

Page 2: Security Concerns

This week's news from Denver capped a particularly tough month for the major electronic voting vendors, who saw similar decertifications in California, Ohio and Florida, according to the report. As they did in Colorado, researchers in Ohio found that many of the popular electronic voting systems could be corrupted with magnets or manipulated with PDAs.

That's precisely the kind of attack security expert Bruce Schneier predicted last year in a report for a voting system security task force at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law titled "The Machinery of Democracy: Protecting Elections in an Electronic World." Schneier wrote that such wireless exploits that could easily take advantage of vulnerabilities in system software or hardware.

"For this type of attack, a Trojan horse would not have to be inserted in advance of Election Day," Schneier wrote. "Instead, an attacker aware of a vulnerability in the voting system's software or firmware could simply show up at the polling station and beam her Trojan horse into the machine using a wireless-enabled personal digital assistant."

Testers in California and Florida, meanwhile, were reportedly able to cripple their systems and change vote tallies using a variety of cracker methods.

The troubles are making election officials in New York look downright prescient. Despite a federal judge's threats of jail time for election officials, the Empire State remains the last paper-ballot-bound holdout against the Help America Vote initiative.

"Every system that is out there, one state or another has found that they are no good," John Gideon of the advocacy group Voters Unite told the AP. "Everybody is starting to look at this now and starting to realize that there is something wrong."

And it's not just the machines that are giving American voters headaches. According to a new survey by USA Today, thousands of eligible voters will likely be turned away from the polls this year as a result of because of flawed database technology, which was also implemented as part of the Help America Vote Act.

In Florida alone, Gannet News Service found some 14,000 people knocked from the voter rolls because their personal information didn't match Social Security, motor vehicle, or other databases. Colorado meanwhile purged 20 percent of its voters from electoral rolls between 2004 and 2006.

Page 2: Balancing 'Prevention vs. Detection'

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David Beirne, executive director of the Election Technology Council, a trade group that represents the major electronic voting system vendors, says at least some of the push back against the industry is being fueled by unrealistic expectations on the technology.

"No paper or previously used mechanical system would withstand the current level of scrutiny," Beirne says. "From an industry standpoint, product improvements are always a legitimate pursuit, but no one has quite come out and said this is what we want. Once everyone agrees that no system is 100 percent foolproof, including paper ballots, then we can have a reasonable dialogue as to the mitigating procedures than can be put into place.

"All voting systems rely upon a balance of prevention versus detection," Beirne adds. "Election officials work to develop prevention techniques prior to the election and post-election detection methods for use in an election contest. When taken together, these procedures and evidence validate the election. In many ways, this whole discussion mirrors that of voter identification and the perceptions over the need for it. For those who say, 'paper is what we want,' they do not realize that the Help America Vote Act has changed the demands and expectations of voting systems for providing disability access and greater usability for voters. The modern requirements for voting in the United States mean that you will always need something other than just a paper ballot in a polling location."

Beirne cautions that the states considering a return to paper so late in the election cycle may be setting themselves up for even more election-night headaches.

"To require wholesale changes for primary elections through March at this time is certainly rash and can potentially lead to unintended consequences of voter and poll worker confusion," says Beirne.

The warning aside, Beirne says vendors stand ready to do whatever the states ask of them to support upcoming elections. He also repeated his organization's call for national electronic voting standards. "At its core, the industry just wants to know what the requirements are for performance and security and will build the systems accordingly," he says. "Unfortunately, many of the stakeholders are too wrapped up in the requirements for how a system should appear rather than how a system should perform."

The EFF's Zimmerman says ultimately computers will have a place in America's elections, but that "people need a system that they believe in, not one that is being preached to them by the priesthood of technology."

Zimmerman says his organization favors hybrid "ballot marking" electronic voting systems that include a touch screen, but then print a paper ballot that can be reviewed by the voter before optical scanning.

"The most important part of all this is that the longer we wait, the more disillusioned people get in the process," Zimmerman says. "I'm more concerned that people are not trusting the system anymore. That's exactly what Help America Vote was supposed to be fighting. Whatever system is used, it must put the focus back on transparency and give the people elections they can really trust."