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Under fire, e-vote companies form a trade group

As electronic voting machines prepare to go to the polls in large numbers, major vendors are collaborating to shore up support for them.

As electronic voting machines prepare to go to the polls in large numbers, major vendors are collaborating to shore up support for them.

Advanced Voting Solutions, Diebold Election Systems, Hart InterCivic, Sequoia Voting Systems, Election Systems & Software and UniLect today said they had formed a trade group under the banner of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), an industry organization.

The newly constituted Election Technology Council pledged to establish a code of ethics for its members, a series of recommendations for standards and certification, and a review of best practices for security.

"We need a code of ethics because we must report to a higher authority--the American voting public," said Tracey Graham, president of Sequoia Voting Systems.

That public has become increasingly restive after a wave of bad press about electronic voting, centered around recent controversies involving security, verifiability and political affiliation.

Voting machine vendors collectively have felt some of the heat applied to Diebold Election Systems, of North Canton, Ohio, which has become a lightning rod for criticism following adverse security reports, partisan comments by its CEO and a legal fracas following the distribution of embarrassing internal e-mail correspondence.

Diebold is hardly alone in facing new scrutiny as federal deadlines for upgrading voting machines approach. Lawmakers say constituents are contacting them with concerns that elections are being turned over to machines that may be less than secure and generate vote counts that may be unverifiable.

In recent weeks, a group of states representing a fifth of the U.S. population took action to re-evaluate the machines, require paper-based reporting mechanisms or extend the deadline by which they're supposed to put the machines into use.

The group met today to establish bylaws and set a second meeting for next month. With a reminder of the contested vote count on punch-card voting machines in Florida three years ago, the ITAA promised a busy agenda in coming months.

"I think the group has a very rapid timetable," said Harris Miller, president of the ITAA. "The American people have a very important election coming up in 2004, and I don't think they want to see a rerun of the embarrassment and the uncertainty we saw in 2000."

One critic of the machine vendors urged the group to take a self-critical, rather than defensive, stance.

"The big question in a lot of people's minds about the formation of this association is whether it's an association put together to help the vendors collectively work defensively against criticism, or if they're working to improve the security of our voting system," said Kim Alexander, founder and president of the California Voter Foundation. "If it's the latter, that's great news. If it is a matter of just trying to smooth over controversies, and dismiss serious criticism raised about election security, it won't ultimately serve the needs of the voting public."