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Florida ditches problematic touch-screen voting, and now what?

Florida decides this week to dump touch-screen voting machines.

MONTREAL -- Florida's decision this week to dump touch-screen voting machines is a good start, computer scientists said at the Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference here on Friday.

The controversial ATM-like machines, which have been plagued by reports of bugs and vulnerabilities, will be replaced with optical-scan balloting, accorfding to a Florida legislature vote this week.

A panel of respected computer scientists -- including Peter Neumann of SRI International, Barbara Simons of the Association of Computing Machinery, and Ron Rivest of MIT (the "R" in the RSA algorithm) -- painted a dismal picture of the current state of the art of electronic voting.

"The entire process is rife with vulnerabilities," Neumann said in an interview after the panel. "It's weakness in depth. Everything in the entire process is a potential source of vulnerability. The technology we live with is riddled with security flaws. It's riddled with people who don't know what they're doing. It's riddled with problems caused by poor human interfaces. There's no easy answer. People are always looking for easy answers. They want simple systems."

The biggest objection among computer scientists is that many e-voting machines don't have audit trails, so voting totals can be quietly manipulated either through a software bug or by a malicious attacker. Paper trails would be a big step toward fixing that.

That leads to the unusual case of some of the world's most esteemed technologists insisting on an analog backup mechanism. "We were called Luddites," said Simons. "Which I thought was funny coming from people who don't understand technology."

A good summary of the topic, including recommendations for next steps, is in Johns Hopkins professor Avi Rubin's testimony before Congress earlier this year.