Pac-Man for president: Hack highlights e-voting flaws

University researchers remind people that electronic voting machines are still easy to manipulate by loading the venerable Pac-Man video game

In a continuing effort to highlight the vulnerability of paperless touchscreen -- or direct recording electronic (DRE) -- voting systems, Alex Halderman of the University of Michigan and Ariel Feldman of Princeton University reprogrammed one such system, the Sequoia AVC Edge, to play Pac-Man. The researchers were able to load the software into the machine without breaking the tamperproof seals.

"We could have reprogrammed it to steal votes, but that's been done before, and Pac-Man is more fun," the duo state on a University of Michigan website dedicated to the hack.

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The project, presented at the recent 2010 Electronic Voting Technology Workshop, is another nail in the coffin of paperless voting systems. Touchscreen voting machines were once thought to be a more accurate and efficient way to vote, but over the past decade, the technology quickly lost favor after computer scientists pointed out that the machines lacked an independent method of verifying election results.

Since 2006, the number of voters that will cast a ballot on a paperless system has fallen dramatically, from half of all voters to less than a third. Today, optical-scan systems have become the most-used method of voting -- more than 60 percent of U.S. voters will use such systems, according to the Verified Voting Foundation. Optical-scan systems, which read the marked bubbles on standardized-test-like sheets, provide a paper audit trail.

For all intents and purposes, the battle over DRE systems has ended, except for a few hold-out states such as Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, and Virginia. For states with warehouses full of the barely used systems, Halderman and Feldman think their Pac-Man solution could be a good one. "DRE voting machines will soon be widely decommissioned," they conclude in their presentation. "Their future lies in emulating classic games to amuse nerds."

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