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Congress Debates E-Voting Security

Congress is considering action to reform electronic voting machine guidelines only days before its members go home for the election season.

At issue is whether local officials will be able to hold elections properly using direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, and whether or not election results will be reliable.

Testifying at a Committee on House Administration (CHA) hearing today, Princeton University professor of technology and public policy Ed Felten said that the risks of vote tampering on DREs is much greater than with paper ballots.

"With paper ballots you can affect a few hundred votes, whereas with electronic voting you can affect the outcome of an entire election," he said.

Felten then demonstrated for the committee how someone could hack an election by inserting a memory card into a slot in the side of a Diebold AccuVote TS DRE.

The slot is protected by a locked door that Felten said he was able to open by purchasing a key from an online jukebox supply store.

Felten recommended that Congress require DREs to come equipped with voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) technology so that voters could check to make sure that their votes are properly recorded.

The CHA hearing is but one a flurry of activities taking place as the result of a well-publicized fiasco in Maryland on September 12, when poll workers were unable to start up newly-implemented DREs.

Many jurisdictions have only recently rolled out DREs as a result of new Federal guidelines published pursuant to the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin introduced a resolution yesterday calling on states to have back-up procedures in place in time for the November 2006 elections.

"A back-up plan as simple as having emergency paper ballots on hand is essential to preventing election day disasters," said Feingold in a statement.

"Some of the problems we saw this year, like voters in Maryland being told to come back later because the machines weren’t working, are simply unacceptable," he said.

These incidents have also put wind in the sails of a bill introduced last year by New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt requiring electronic voting machines used in Federal elections to be equipped with paper trail technology.

During the hearing, Representative Zoe Lofgren said she supported the Holt bill but was not a co-sponsor because she wanted to keep an open mind about VVPAT technology.

She said that it was critical to make sure that voters have confidence in the electoral system.

"The integrity of the election is paramount," she said. "It goes to the core of the spirit of our nation and the future of our democracy."

Vernon Ehlers, the former physicist who chairs the CHA, invited Holt to sit in on the hearing and allowed him to question witnesses.

Earlier this month, Felten published a study demonstrating gaping security vulnerabilities in the Diebold AccuVote TS model DRE.

Another witness, Michael Shamos, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, opposes the use of VVPAT.

He agreed that "some vulnerabilities are severe and need to be repaired."

But he argued that paper-based solutions are also flawed, and urged Congress to wait for better high-tech solutions to emerge.

Felten's response was, "I don't think we can afford to wait."