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Electronic elections: What about security?

Voters put touch screens to the test

By Jeordan Legon

Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke casts her early ballot at a new touch-screen terminal.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke casts her early ballot at a new touch-screen terminal.

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(CNN) -- A record number of counties -- almost one fifth by some estimates -- tallied votes on electronic voting machines. But some experts worry that despite rigorous testing, the machines may not be as secure as their makers promise.

"People have jumped on the electronic voting bandwagon, thinking that will solve the problems," said Avi Rubin, a technology security expert and researcher at AT&T Labs in New Jersey. "But these systems are largely untested."

The problem, say critics, is that the software which runs the machines is proprietary, and therefore not open to public scrutiny. Without scientists being able to freely analyze the systems, election officials may be leaving themselves open to the possibility of hacking, vote tampering or incorrect calculations.

The companies that make the machines say they've built safeguards to protect against such problems. Engineers say they've encrypted and protected the data with digital signatures, the information is backed up at least twice as a safeguard against mechanical failures and any changes to votes are logged and tracked.

In addition, the machine manufacturers say their voting software and hardware must pass strict security standards imposed by the Federal Election Commission and the National Association of State Election Directors. Voters touch a screen to cast a ballot in many systems; others involve pushing buttons, much like automatic teller machines.

"Show me somebody who has gotten into our software," said Mark Beckstrand, a vice president at Sequoia Voting Systems, builder of voting machines used in Florida, Ohio, New Jersey and other states. "We haven't lost or misplaced or ever been accused of not having 100 percent accuracy."

'Going through our learning curves'

But Bryn Mawr College professor Rebecca Mercuri, who studies election technology, said several court cases have been filed alleging malfunctions in the machines. She said the government-mandated security checks the machines must pass are outdated. And makers of the machines have blocked attempts by Mercuri and other scientists to inspect them.

"It makes it really hard to show if their product has been tampered with, if it's a felony to inspect it," Mercuri said.

The machines also are relatively new technology. The touch screens became more popular in more precincts in 1996, when improved technology made them smaller and more dependable, said Doug Lewis, Executive Director of The Election Center in Houston, Texas.

The center, which represents the country's elections officials, oversees testing of the touch screens. In the 2000 election, about 10 percent of the county's voters used them, according to the center. This year, almost 18 percent used them, Lewis said.

A different estimate by Election Data Services says 510 of the nation's counties (16 percent) were expected to use electronic voting systems this election.

Lewis said he's confident the new technology is more secure than paper voting, but that doesn't mean there won't be problems.

"The new machines are so new to us that we're going to do through our learning curves to see what the strengths and weaknesses are," he said.

"There is no such thing as a perfect system. If a human being can create it, then human beings can mark it or change it."

Avoiding the problems in Florida

Elections officials hope to avoid a repeat of the touch-screen machine malfunctions and lack of trained poll workers that forced some polling places in Florida to turn voters away during September's primaries.

Florida's experience with the machines prompted Santa Clara County, in the heart of California's Silicon Valley, to delay a pilot program that would have put the touch screens in 15 percent of the precincts.

But many other counties are pushing ahead with the touch screens. Much on the spending for machines is fueled by $3.9 billion Congress set aside for states to overhaul their voting systems in the next three years. But the need for the machines also is prompted by a federal law mandating that by 2006, at least one machine serve disabled voters in every precinct. The touch-screen machines are easier to adapt for blind voters because they can be outfitted with audio units.

Rubin believes some of that money would be well-spent on new, more robust systems that could be developed if the 20 or so electronic voting vendors are mandated to share data. By adopting "open source" standards, the software could be fortified against hackers and malfunctions, Rubin said.

"The philosophy of open source is that it's more likely to expose whatever problems there are," he said. "If you keep it closed, an attacker may find a vulnerability and you won't have the opportunity to detect it."

But manufacturers disagree, saying that making their code public will make their systems more prone to hacking. And the development of voting systems and meeting the rigorous government testing required is expensive. They argue patents help them recoup their cost.

The future of voting seems to be electronic

The stakes are high: billions of dollars in machine sales and restoring public confidence in the elections process. Lewis expects about 75 percent of voters to cast ballots electronically by 2010.

Although Britain and Switzerland are testing Web voting systems, security concerns of running an Internet election make the electronic voting machines the next viable alternative to hanging chads and hard-to-tabulate paper ballots.

"We're having to go through a tough transition," Lewis said. "For whole lot of people, there is a comfort level in having paper to go back to. It's difficult for someone to track this electronically, rather than on paper."

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