Critics, supporters prepare for U.S. e-voting

Despite precautions, problems are anticipated by security advocates

WASHINGTON - Voting security advocates in the U.S. are bracing for a repeat of problems in the upcoming general election that could rival Florida during the 2000 presidential race.

Advocates aren't worried about hanging chads on paper ballots, which caused thousands of votes to go uncounted in the 2000 election. Instead, a number of voting security groups are focused on the electronic voting machines that have replaced paper ballots in many states. Counties in 27 states, including presidential swing states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as the District of Columbia, will use direct electronic recording machines (DREs), accounting for about 30 percent of U.S. voters on Nov. 2.

Interviews with local elections officials across the U.S. who will be overseeing the use of electronic voting equipment on Election Day suggest that most dismiss the controversy over electronic voting technology and are hopeful about the promise of the new machines to allow elections to run more smoothly. But a flood of new voters could combine with a potpourri of new voting technology and the U.S.'s scattershot system for running and managing elections to create confusion.

Voting security advocates have raised dozens of concerns about e-voting machines. Among the complaints about DREs: Some of the back-end vote-counting tabulators can be easily hacked; some smart cards that provide access to the machines can be faked; and votes can be lost when machines crash, as computers sometimes do.

In short, groups like BlackBoxVoting.org and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) complain that DREs don't give voters any indication of what's going on inside the machine. Most DRE vendors keep the inner workings of their machines proprietary, and critics complain that the DREs are in essence a "black box."

The EFF has focused on what it calls the lack of an audit capability in DREs. Most machines cannot print a so-called voter-verified paper trail, so when a politician demands a recount, most DREs will simply spit out the same set of disputed numbers again and again.

"At the end of the day, you really have to trust that the design of the system was such that it's doing what the vendors are telling you it's doing," said Matt Zimmerman, an EFF attorney focused on e-voting. "It doesn't prove anything to me for you … to say, 'We can recount it.' What they really mean is, 'We're going to press the print button again on these machines, and by magic, we're going to have the same outcome."

BlackBoxVoting.org and VerifiedVoting.org have lined up thousands of volunteers to check for problems with DREs on Election Day. At least one lawsuit still pending, filed by U.S. Representative Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, seeks to stop his state from using DREs without adding a paper trail.

Supporters of DREs defend them as a much better alternative to the paper ballots that caused so much confusion in Florida in 2000. E-voting machines offer no less transparency than old paper balloting systems, argued Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), a trade association of technology vendors.

And the systems have been a blessing for harried poll workers.

"We're definitely happier with DRE (systems). We're done counting votes at 10 p.m. It used to be 2, 3 or 4 a.m. with paper ballots," said Dorene Mandity, director of elections for Beaver County, Pennsylvania.

To spur the adoption of updated voting technology and to address problems with paper ballots that sullied the 2000 presidential election, the U.S. Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002. The legislation provided US$3.9 billion for state and local governments to improve elections, including $325 million to replace punch-card and lever voting machines.

But Zimmerman and other critics complain that many states rushed to spend the HAVA money on new DREs without considering security concerns. "What we want to know is, what are these machines actually doing?" he said. "How are these things programmed? Are there errors in the programming?"

The EFF and other critics of DREs have detailed several past problems with DREs, including machines that have apparently mismarked ballots, and a special election in Florida in January where the machines did not record votes from 134 voters even though there was just a single race in the election.

Election officials like Ruth Hess, county clerk in Mecosta County, Michigan, defend the DREs as a significant improvement over paper ballots. The common problem of over-voting -- voting for more than one candidate per race -- is impossible, and if a person under-votes -- doesn't cast a vote in some races -- the DRE also warns the voter, election officials say. DREs also allow people with impaired vision to vote without poll workers standing over their shoulders.

Hess acknowledges that DREs can have problems, including machines crashing during Election Day. But she sees the DRE machines as the best alternative available. "I'm smart enough and old enough to know there is no perfect voting system," she said. "But I like them because I feel that everybody's votes are counted."

Wide-scale voting fraud through DREs would be extremely unlikely, say backers of e-voting machines. "I think it'd require a rather large conspiracy of technically competent people beyond what I've ever seen," said Brad Bryant, election director in the Kansas Secretary of State's office.

The ITAA's Miller assigned most of the past problems to "people or processes," instead of DRE technology.

To help assuage concerns of lost votes, several groups questioning the security of DREs have called for "voter-verified paper trials" -- a paper printout of each voter's choices that the voter can check before leaving the polls. Advocates of such a paper trial say it's the only way for voters to ensure that their intention was accurately recorded by the machine, and that those documents are needed to have a valid recount of DRE votes.

Only one state, Nevada, is requiring such a system for this November's election. California will require them on all DREs by 2006.

Miller suggested that in the unlikely event a group of hackers found a way to change votes inside an e-voting machine, they wouldn't stop without changing the paper trail as well.

"Let's assume that someone was clever enough to fool the outside independent (machine) evaluators, clever enough to fool the state evaluators, clever enough to fool the local election officials and record votes for John Kerry that should've been for George Bush or vice versa," Miller said. "If they're clever enough to do that, they're clever enough to write the software to give you a false paper ballot, too."

Elections officials, also, expressed doubts about paper ballots.

"I think people figured out how to rig paper ballots a hundred years ago," said Linda Hlebak, deputy director of elections for Lake County, Ohio. "I've seen people hand count ballots, and even with people checking and double-checking, you can't get the same answer."

Others fear the added complexity of handling paper receipts for votes counted, should a paper audit trail be mandated.

"I don't think the typical voter understands what a problem (paper receipts) could be," said Moody. "Your receipt from this election could be two feet long ... there could be paper jams. It could be a nightmare."

The EFF's Zimmerman countered that printers can add a level of complexity for would-be hackers as well as election officials. "You want to make (hacking) as difficult as possible," he said.

Still, election officials using DREs say the machines are much easier for voters to use than older voting systems, and they will avoid the sort of problems that plagued Florida in 2000 where election officials spent weeks engaged in a manual recount of faulty punch-cards and where voters were confused by paper ballot designs.

While the systems may not show voters a printed receipt of each ballot, many of the newer systems do save a digital record of each electronic ballot cast, which can be retrieved in a "manual audit" and printed to get a picture of the exact votes cast on a particular DRE machine.

Other officials are more worried about the voters than the voting machines.

"Once a machine has been certified by the U.S. government and testing labs, I don't get into whether it meets other people's standards," said Carole Bayeur-Dawson, county auditor in Dallas County, Iowa, where DREs will be used in eight of 27 precincts. "My thoughts go to the election-day process, are voters fearful of (the technology)? I don't question how the equipment is working, but how voters accept it."

While the issues raised by voting security experts could lower voters' confidence with the systems, the vast majority of elections workers interviewed by IDG News Service said they trust the machines to keep an accurate count of votes and not to break down.

"What's critical on Nov. 2 is that whatever system voters are using, they feel confident that their votes are counted as they were cast and feel certain that the final election result reflects the vote," said Seligson of Electionline, a non-partisan group in Washington D.C. that tracks election reform across the country.

(Paul Roberts and Elizabeth Heichler in Boston contributed to this story.)

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