E-voting hobbled by security concerns

Nearly all electronic voting machines in use today effectively remain black boxes without external methods of verifying the results.

It's been nearly five years since Americans received a painful education on the perils of traditional voting machines in Florida and almost one year since the 2004 election revealed perplexing irregularities in Ohio's vote tabulation methods.

Yet no uniform security standards exist for electronic voting machines. Even though they were used to tabulate a third of the votes in last year's presidential run, nearly all electronic voting machines in use today remain black boxes without external methods of verifying that the results have not been altered or sabotaged.

Possible threats to an accurate electronic vote tally are legion. They include everything from worms and viruses infecting Microsoft Windows-equipped systems to equipment tampering, code alteration and ballot box stuffing. On Friday, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is charged with researching voting security, is convening a conference in Gaithersburg, Md., to explore technological countermeasures.

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What's new:
Nearly all electronic voting machines in use today remain black boxes without external methods of verifying that the results have not been altered or sabotaged.

Bottom line:
The National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is charged with researching voting security, is convening a conference to explore technological countermeasures.

More stories on e-voting

In principle, there should be an easy solution: Require that e-voting machines include what's known as a voter-verifiable paper trail. That would permit a voter to review a physical printout with his or her selections--perhaps under glass so the receipt can't be removed--which would also provide a way to perform a manual recount, if necessary.

But a complicated mix of partisan politics and the relative paucity of voter-verifiable products available today has delayed the switch to improved technology, according to election experts interviewed by CNET News.com.

Congress in 2002 also handed $650 million, through the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), to state officials for the purchase of electronic voting machines without imposing any voter-verifiable requirements. The money has already been spent, and federal politicians aren't eager to write a similar check again.

"They've spent the money provided by HAVA on machines without a paper trail," says Matt Zimmerman, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco who researches electronic voting. "And now they say they don't have money to upgrade."

Activists for the blind, too, have urged the speedy adoption of electronic voting machines. The National Federation of the Blind has filed a lawsuit (Click for PDF) against Volusia County, Fla., seeking an injunction forcing the installation of touch screen voting machines that are accessible to blind voters but lack a paper trail.

A congressional bottleneck
In Congress, at least four bills requiring paper trails were introduced in the first few weeks of 2005. All remain bottled up in committee, however, in part because key Republicans view e-voting reform as a Democratic ploy to cast doubt on the last two presidential races.

Counting votes
More and more votes are being cast
on electronic machines, thanks to
a federal law giving hundreds of
millions of dollars to states to
pay for upgrades. Punched cards'
popularity is dropping.

"This is one of those circumstances where you have a particular committee chairman, in this case Chairman Bob Ney of the House Administration Committee, who simply does not believe that there is an issue there," said Patrick Eddington, spokesman for Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J. Holt is backing H.R.550, which requires an "individual voter-verified paper record" and is strongly supported by computer scientists.

Ney replied through a representative that states were free to set their own standards--including voter-verifiable ballots--under the 2002 HAVA law. "The congressman does not believe there should be a national federal mandate at this point in time," said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for Ney, an Ohio Republican. "In his view, the Help America Vote Act has not been implemented yet, and he's not supportive of reopening the bill until it has been fully implemented."

While Congress is tying itself in partisan knots, state legislators have been busy pressing ahead. At least 25 states have enacted verified-voting legislation, according to VerifiedVoting.org, with seven states adopting the requirement in the last three months alone. Legislation is pending in many others.

"The transparency of voting systems is critical to ensuring that the public is supportive of an election, mostly proving that the loser actually lost," said Cameron Wilson, the public-policy director of the Association for Computing Machinery, which supports verified-voting laws. "We (also) feel you should have stronger engineering and testing of both the design and operation."

Adding impetus to this state-by-state legislative trend is a report released last month by an election commission headed by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State

 

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