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GAO: Voting machines not to blame for Florida irregularities

But computer scientists argue government tests were too limited to rule out technological glitches during contested '06 congressional race. Paper trails, they say, are the best answer.

With this year's presidential race in full swing, it's easy to forget about alleged electronic voting glitches that snarled at least one congressional contest in 2006.

But a report issued by government auditors this week is drawing new attention to what many computer scientists view as the perils of touch-screen machines that don't produce a paper record.

It all goes back to the November 2006 election in Sarasota County, Fla., where more than 18,000 of the county's ballots--or, put another way, 1 in 7 voters--didn't register a pick in the U.S. House of Representatives race. County officials went on to certify Republican Vern Buchanan as the winner by a 369-vote margin over Democrat Christine Jennings, who went on to lodge legal challenges.

The arguably abnormal undervote prompted concern from voting rights advocates about the possibility of glitches in the Elections Systems & Software iVotronic voting machines used in the race. (Florida has since announced its intention to ditch the touch-screen voting machines.)

Now government investigators appear poised to put the events behind them. A Government Accountablity Office report (PDF) released Thursday contends a series of tests staged last fall demonstrate that nothing was amiss with the voting machines themselves.

"Although the test results cannot be used to provide absolute assurance, we believe that these test results, combined with the other reviews that have been conducted by the State of Florida, GAO, and others, have significantly reduced the possibility that the iVotronic DREs (Direct Recording Electronic machines) were the cause of the undervote," the GAO wrote. "At this point, we believe that adequate testing has been performed on the voting machine software to reach this conclusion and do not recommend further testing in this area."

And on Friday, the U.S. House of Representatives task force that had commissioned the report voted, based on those conclusions, to recommend ending its investigation and Jennings' legal challenge to the results. A vote scheduled for next week in the House Committee on Administration is likely to make that decision final.

"This investigation served a critical role in fulfilling the House's constitutional responsibility when seating members of Congress," said Rep. Charles A. Gonzalez (D-Texas), who served as task force chairman.

End of story, right?

Hardly, if you ask computer scientists who study electronic voting machines.

The Verified Voting Foundation, a group founded by Stanford University computer science professor David Dill that advocates for paper trails accompanying all electronic ballots, argues the GAO's test methods were "insufficiently ambitious" to determine whether the machines were at fault.

To reach its conclusion, the GAO set up three tests: checking the firmware on a representative sample of machines to gain "reasonable assurance" that machines had been running the correct, certified programs on the contested election day (they did); seeing whether predefined test ballots showed up properly and recorded votes accurately on 10 iVotronic machines (they did); and "miscalibrating" two iVotronic machines to see whether they would still record the ballot selections displayed on the screen (they did, for the record, although with some difficulty on the part of the test-voter).

But the Verified Voting Foundation says the auditors should have also explored a number of other areas, such as internal bug data, firmware on the "cartridges" that are inserted in the machine to record a voter's ballot, and equipment manufacturing quality.

"The GAO tests add little to what we already knew," said Princeton University computer science professor Edward Felten, who has authored reports on e-voting vulnerabilities. "There is still insufficient evidence to determine what caused the undervotes."

Dill maintains his group isn't trying to criticize the GAO but wants to highlight how difficult it is to sort out election irregularities in a contest relying solely on complex computer systems. By Verified Voting's count, five states were still using paperless electronic voting systems --Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, New Jersey, and Tennessee.

"Had this election been conducted on a voter-verified paper ballot system, as in surrounding counties that form part of District 13, it probably would not have failed," he said. "More to the point, it would have been a lot easier to find out what happened."

In any case, Jennings, for her part, plans to challenge Buchanan for his seat again this year.