Vote, with No Confidence

By Edward Cone 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.

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.

This article was originally published on 2003-10-02
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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