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Sober warnings about e-voting systems

With another national election in the offing, attorney Eric J. Sinrod focuses on vulnerabilities in current e-voting systems.

In the wake of the hanging-and-dimpled-chads debacle of the 2000 presidential election, there has been a move to embrace electronic voting systems. Good news, right? Perhaps not quite yet. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University recently released a report analyzing the security vulnerabilities of three of the most commonly used electronic voting systems. The results are sobering.

All three voting systems were found to contain significant security and reliability vulnerabilities. The Brennan report also concluded these vulnerabilities pose threats to the integrity of national, state and local elections.

The most troubling of these vulnerabilities can be largely fixed if adequate countermeasures are put in place at the state and local levels. So far, however, few jurisdictions have initiated these countermeasures, which could make the least difficult attacks against voting systems tough to execute successfully.

The three electronic voting systems that were analyzed are Direct Recording Electronic (DRE), which directly records a voter's selections in each contest using a ballot that appears on a display screen; DRE with Voter Verified Paper Trail, which is a DRE that captures a voter's choice both internally in electronic form and contemporaneously on paper; and Precinct Count Optical Scan, which allows a voter to mark a paper ballot with a pen or pencil with the voter then carrying the ballot to a scanner.

It would not be hard for somebody to employ software attack systems that aim to change the result of a close statewide election. Furthermore, voting machines that have wireless components are much more open to various attacks. At this point, only New York and Minnesota ban wireless components on all voting machines.

The Brennan Center report makes certain security recommendations, including automatic, routine audits comparing voter-verified paper records to electronic records following every election. It also throws its weight behind so-called parallel testing on Election Day, where machines are randomly selected and examined for evidence of software attacks and viruses or worms. It also urges more states to ban wireless components.

Steps like these should instill more confidence in people who want to rely on electronic voting systems. Plainly, reliability and accuracy are essential if our democracy is to ensure fair elections.

The failure to properly count all votes has an obvious impact. No matter what their political persuasion, most people surely would agree that the world would be different now--whether viewed positively or negatively--if Al Gore had become president in 2000, rather than George W. Bush. The lessons from the 2000 presidential election in the U.S. as well as those from the recent presidential election in Mexico (where there were calls for a recount) reinforce the notion that it's vital to develop the most accurate vote counting methods possible.

Of course, most elections are not so close that a few inaccuracies could affect their outcomes. But as we saw in 2000, it does happen, at least once in awhile.