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Nevada improves odds with e-vote

Slot machine experts consulted on voting technology

By Marsha Walton

Engineer Jim Barbee tests the cashless wagering system in a slot machine. Nevada has tapped into that expertise to select voting machines.
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Las Vegas (Nevada)
Technology (general)

LAS VEGAS, Nevada (CNN) -- Whether it's a casual tourist putting a few dollars in a slot machine, or a high-roller risking tens of thousands at the poker table, most Las Vegas gamblers have one thing in common: They believe they can win.

Dean Heller, Nevada's secretary of state, wants to instill that same degree of confidence in the state's electronic voting machines. So he asked the state experts who test slot machines for fairness and reliability to weigh in on the voting variety.

"Gambling is a billion-dollar industry, they can't afford to make a mistake, they can't afford to have these machines manipulated," he says. "So I said, 'I know this isn't within your responsibility, but could you determine, in your best estimation, which are the most secure machines available today to use electronically?' "

It was an unusual request but an interesting challenge for the engineers who spend their time testing, dismantling, and figuring out how a cheater might compromise any of the thousands of loud, dizzying, dazzling slot machines licensed in the state.

The lab where these engineers and computer scientists work has dozens of slot machines, with music and video displays ranging from "Wheel of Fortune" to "Wayne's World" to "The Platypus Game."

"Once it gets down to the real heart of the matter, a processor is a processor, it is only the interface that makes a difference," said Marc McDermott, chief of the electronic services division of the Nevada Gaming Control Board. "On a slot machine the interface is the spinning reels or the video display, on a voting machine you have different buttons."

While he could not actually take apart any e-voting systems, McDermott reviewed tests and literature available on several electronic voting systems. The state eventually decided to put its money on touchscreen machines from Sequoia Voting Systems.

One key to the selection: A voter-verified paper trail installed on the machines.

"Without a paper trail attached to a voting machine today, I think any election would be suspect," Heller says.

For this year's general election, Nevada is the only state where virtually every voting machine has a paper backup that could aid in a machine malfunction, an audit or a recount.

"If you want to talk about security, I would say right now the electronic voting devices in Nevada are the most secure devices in the country right now," Heller says.

Voters receptive

While many jurisdictions changed or updated their voting technologies after the punch-card problems in Florida in 2000, some experts say e-voting technology, especially systems without paper trails, still cannot be trusted completely.

"The design of the [electronic voting] machines is not up to the standards of say, gambling machines," says Stanford University computer scientist David Dill. "The certification processes are not up to the certification processes that exist for software in airplanes, or something like that. The companies that inspect the voting machines at the federal level are private entities, supervised by private organizations. It's very much NOT an open process."

Nevada voters have been using the Sequoia touchscreen machines with the paper trail in Clark County -- which includes Las Vegas -- during early voting that began October 16.

How are voters reacting?

"They enjoy it, just the idea that it can be so simple, as opposed to some of the problems other places have had," says poll worker Jim Stinger, working at a busy voting location inside Meadows Mall.

Delores Wagar was using this technology for the first time.

"It was nice. If I made a mistake I could correct it," she says.

Summer Reese, who says she is pretty adept with technology, said the process was a breeze.

"They're simple enough that anyone can use it. You pretty much just touch what you want, and hit 'next.' "

Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller consulted experts at the state gaming control.

Election officials say it's not just security and accuracy that are important, but every individual's perception of that fairness.

"I know how much we test the programming and the machines, and I know they are accurate," says Larry Lomax, registrar of voters in Clark County. "It's important that all the voters are confident in the outcome of the election, and I don't have any doubt that whether it's a paper trail or some other technical solution to this issue, it's the way of the future."

While he's familiar with critics who say there's been too quick a move to new technologies, Nevada's Heller is a lot more concerned about precincts that have done little or nothing to improve voting methods.

"Seventy-five percent of the people in this country are going to vote on the same machines that they voted on four years ago," says Heller. "Now there's a sad message in that. If this is the pace of change in this country, we're talking 16 years before we have any substantive changes from the 2000 debacle we had in Florida."

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