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Diebold for Democracy

After the federal election controversies of 2000, Congress turned to technology as a solution, approving almost $4 billion to modernize state voting systems. Electronic voting, however, is proving as contentious an issue as hanging chads.

Congress and the states envisioned replacing paper ballots with direct recording electronic systems (DREs) offering voters choices on a video display that records votes electronically. The manufacturers of these machines promised improved user interfaces, voter confirmation and instant running tabulations.

What they've gotten instead is lawsuits. From California to Ohio to Maryland, citizen groups are attempting to stop the deployment of DREs, arguing that the paperless ballot machines are vulnerable to failure and fraud.

California has decertified almost half of the DREs expected to be used in the November elections. Missouri says it will not certify any DREs that can't produce paper receipts and 88 counties in Ohio are seeking alternatives to DREs. Maryland activists are seeking similar restraints on the use of DREs.

"We cannot achieve perfectly secure systems; such things do not exist. But on the spectrum of terrible to very good, we are sitting at terrible," Johns Hopkins University's Aviel Rubin told a congressional panel earlier this week. "Not only have the vendors not implemented security safeguards that are possible, they have not even correctly implemented the ones that are easy."

Rubin is part of a team of researchers that claim to have uncovered vulnerabilities in Ohio-based Diebold Election Systems' electronic voting equipment. The team reached their findings after analyzing computer code believed to be for Diebold's machines. The proprietary code, which included modifications made through 2002, was posted anonymously to a public Web site.

RABA Technologies, a consulting firm with close ties to the National Security Agency, has also analyzed the alleged Diebold material and called for a "pervasive rewrite" of the code.

"Yet, the vendors, and many election officials, such as those in Maryland and Georgia, continue to insist that the machines are perfectly secure," Rubin said Tuesday. "I cannot fathom the basis for their claims. I do not know of a single computer security expert who would testify that these machines are secure. I personally know dozens of computer security experts who would testify that they are not."

Stung by the criticism, Diebold joined five other electronic voting machine makers to "identify and address security concerns." Under the auspices of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) -- a Washington-based technology trade group -- Diebold, Advanced Voting Systems, Election Systems & Software, Hart InterCivic, Sequoia Voting Systems and Unilect formed the Election Technology Council (ETC) to "raise the profile of electronic voting."

The e-voting machine manufacturers also point to the fact that none of the alleged vulnerabilities has led to any charges of voting fraud or abuse. Electronic voting problems were scarce and anecdotal in the March Super Tuesday coast-to-coast primaries involving 10 states.

"While it is generally accepted that tampering is possible with any computer system given sufficient time and resources, some experts believe that current security practices are sufficient. Others believe that additional steps are needed," Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) said at the Tuesday hearing.

A General Accounting Office (GAO) issued this week focuses on the lack of audit trails left by DREs.

"Since not all DREs provide a paper record of the votes, election officials may rely on the information that is collected by the DREs' electronic memory," the report states. "Part of the debate over the assurance of integrity that DREs provide revolves around the reliability of this information."

Putnam said some experts believe that e-voting is serious enough to require changes in the systems before they are more widely adopted, including the printing of paper ballots that would be verified by the voter and hand-counted if the election results were contested.

Jim Adler, founder and CEO of VoteHere, an e-voting company, claims demanding a paper receipt is moving in the wrong direction.

"Just because some people have diagnosed the electronic voting machine disease doesnt mean that the only cure is going back to paper ballots," he said. "There are other cures. The call for paper ballots is similar to the call nearly 100 years ago to ban the automobile and go back to horses. Back then, the automobile was considered dangerous new technology lacking critical safety equipment such as safety glass."

Instead of moving backward in elections, he said, "We need to look forward and, in effect, add 'safety glass' to our electronic voting machines."

Despite the criticism, e-voting is expected to move ahead this November. An estimated 50 million registered voters, representing nearly 30 percent of all voters, are expected to cast their votes in using some type of electronic voting technology.