RealTime IT News

Feds to Toughen E-Voting Standards?

A federal agency is set to recommend significant changes to specifications for electronic-voting machines next week, internetnews.com has learned.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is recommending that the 2007 version of the Voluntary Voting Systems Guidelines (VVSG) decertify direct record electronic (DRE) machines.

DREs are currently used by more than 30 percent of jurisdictions across the U.S. and are the exclusive voting technology in Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland and South Carolina.

According to an NIST paper to be discussed at a meeting of election regulators at NIST headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md., on Dec. 4 and 5, DRE vote totals cannot be audited because the machines are not software independent.

In other words, there is no means of verifying vote tallies other than by relying on the software that tabulated the results to begin with.

The machines currently in use are "more vulnerable to undetected programming errors or malicious code," according to the paper.

The NIST paper also noted that, "potentially, a single programmer could 'rig' a major election."

It recommends "requiring SI [software independent] voting systems in VVSG 2007."

The NIST is also going to recommend changes to the design of machines equipped with paper rolls that provide audit trails.

Currently, the paper rolls produce records that are illegible or otherwise unusable, and NIST is recommending that "paper rolls should not be used in new voting systems."

The lack of software independence has reared its ugly head in Sarasota's Congressional race, where 18,000 fewer votes were cast than in other races on the same ballot.

A recount was futile in that election because Sarasota uses a DRE-type machine.

This has provoked concerns that someone tampered with that election.

County officials told internetnews.com that the machines themselves are now being examined by a team of computer security experts and that they will finish their work by Friday.

Congress has also been on the case.

Hearings were held throughout the summer and fall, and legislation was introduced that would require the use of some form of voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT).

These efforts have gathered steam in response to reported machine malfunctions during the March 2006 primaries, as well as studies by the Brennan Center and Princeton University professor Ed Felten, as well as pressure from advocacy groups such as VotersUnite.org.

But evidence is emerging to the effect that paper trails may not be of much help.

For instance, a study of the 2006 primaries in Ohio commissioned by Cuyahoga County, Ohio, showed that the results of that election could not be verified despite the presence of VVPAT.

The study concluded that "the election system, in its entirety, exhibits shortcomings with extremely serious consequences, especially in the event of a close election."

Many former advocates of VVPAT, including John Gideon, executive director of VotersUnite, now favor requiring that all votes be recorded on paper ballots.

"DREs are unacceptable as voting devices and ... the addition of a VVPAT on a DRE is only a placebo to make some voters feel more comfortable," Gideon said in an e-mail.

Computer scientists and election experts such as Roy Saltman disagree with the idea of going back to paper ballots. "If you insist on paper you're tying elections to an old technology," he told internetnews.com.

Doug Jones of the University of Iowa suggested that election officials consider implementing new technologies that enable independent auditing of votes.

He pointed to a system devised by Ted Selker, co-director of the Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project. "The state of the art systems aren't even on the market."