Calif. official votes for optical scans, hand tallies

Secretary of State tells attendees at Usenix security conference that optical scanning of paper ballots combined with hand tallies is more accurate and secure than an e-voting system that uses paper trails.

Elinor Mills Former Staff Writer
Elinor Mills covers Internet security and privacy. She joined CNET News in 2005 after working as a foreign correspondent for Reuters in Portugal and writing for The Industry Standard, the IDG News Service and the Associated Press.
Elinor Mills
3 min read

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- California voters this year will be using paper ballots that will be optically scanned and manually audited to protect against fraud and problems that have marred elections conducted with electronic voting systems, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen said Wednesday.

Debra Bowen, California's secretary of state, speaks with CNET News after giving a keynote address at the Usenix security conference on the voting plan for the state. CNET News

In a keynote address at the Usenix security conference entitled "Dr. Strangevote or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Paper Ballot," Bowen said optical scanning was a "pretty good, although not perfect alternative" to direct-recording electronic voting.

"I don't think a perfect voting system exists or can be created because for every brilliant idea that we execute perfectly we'll have an equally brilliant person figuring out a way around it," she said.

Optical scanning preserves the original ballot and allows the state to check the accuracy of results "through hand tallies of a meaningful percentage of randomly selected precincts after every election and for every contest," she added. "Hand tallies mean never having to say 'I trust you' to hundreds of thousands of lines of code."

Touchscreen systems don't have an original record or any way to reconstruct the voter's intent, Bowen said. Also, e-voting paper trails often are confusing to voters who are forced to verify their votes on paper that appear in a different format from what they saw on the touchscreen, she said.

Not only have outcomes with electronic voting systems been challenged and questioned in real elections, but numerous studies--including a thorough study Bowen commissioned last year--have shown that the e-voting systems can be tampered with, can have programming mistakes that record the wrong results or display the wrong ballot type, and choices can be altered or interfered with as a result of something as simple as barbeque sauce stuck to the touchscreen, according to Bowen.

The frailty of e-voting systems
Reviews of electronic voting systems have found that they are susceptible to virus attacks that can corrupt data and spread from one machine to every other machine in the jurisdiction, she said. Many electronic systems have been found to have hardcoded passwords or passwords that are easy to guess or the same in every machine, and vendors have systems where a single key opens any voting machine from that company, she said.

Bowen told of the ease with which researchers were able to defeat physical security features on e-voting machine, for instance by unscrewing housings to bypass a security seal and thus leaving no evidence that the box was tampered with.

A new report on the ES&S voting systems from a team at the University of Pennsylvania found numerous exploitable vulnerabilities in the system, including the ability to delete data using handheld devices and a small magnet, she said.

With systems that use paper trails combined with electronic ballots, research has found that it can be difficult to see the results on the paper through a plastic covering that they appear behind, and many voters don't bother to try to verify their results.

A paper ballot is a permanent record that is easy to audit, whereas electronic vote records and audit logs can be altered, she said. And many e-voting systems use Microsoft Access for tallying votes, which opens the system up to fraud, she added. "Votes can readily be moved from one column to another .... without being detectable."

California and West Virginia are the only two states that have a statutory requirement for random manual vote tallies, according to Bowen.

"I added requirements for additional manual tallies of 10 percent of precincts in any contest where the margin of victory is less than one half of one percent," Bowen said. If there is a problem with the scanning software for any reason additional audits can be done, she added.

VIDEO: Bowen tells CNET News what system will be used in the November elections and why she thinks it is better than relying on electronic voting systems that use paper trails.