Critics punch at touch-screen voting security
• County voting officials have several options for meeting requirements of a new federal election law.
By Susie L. Oh, Bremerton Sun
October 10, 2004
Electronic voting machines, once hailed as the answer to the problems experienced in the 2000 election, have come under increasing scrutiny here and across the country as states gear up to comply with federal laws requiring polling places to provide touch-screen machines or something similar by 2006.
Voter advocates and computer scientists are critical of the electronic machines, which allow voters to make their choices by touching a computer screen. Chief among the accusations is the software is not secure from hackers, making voter fraud possible.
But the machines have the advantage of fulfilling a provision of the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 that requires ballots to be accessible for the disabled to vote without help.
The challenges of electronic voting affect fewer people in Washington than elsewhere in the country because much of the state votes by absentee ballot. In Kitsap County, 75 percent of voters vote by mail and won't see changes to the way they vote, said Kitsap County Elections Manager Dolores Gilmore.
The challenges to voter integrity and the debate between election officials and electronic voting skeptics attracted a sparse but well-informed audience to a forum in Poulsbo last week.
Voter rights advocates John Gideon of VotersUnite! and Doug Pibel of YES! Magazine challenged Gilmore and the county's plans for electronic voting in the future, saying the software for touch-screen machines was not fully reliable yet.
"We're moving much too fast," Pibel said.
While Gideon admitted there has been no evidence of fraud so far, he said there is evidence of mistakes made by machines in other parts of the country, including Snohomish County, which used electronic machines this year.
Gilmore countered that the technology is continually improving and that in addition to extensive testing, the elections process is open to observers, including the media and political parties.
Snohomish and Yakima counties are the only ones using electronic voting machines in the state this year.
Kitsap County uses an optical scan ballot, which is a paper ballot read through a device that shines a light through it.
Gilmore said the county has several options to meet federal requirements by January 2006. They include:
• Purchase a system for both absentee and polling-place voters that will include electronic voting machines.
• Keep the current optical scan system for absentee ballots and purchase touch-screen machines for the polls.
• Keep the optical scan system for absentee and polling-place voters, with the addition of devices to allow the disabled to vote at their precinct on election day, like a machine that marks a paper ballot for the voter.
Gilmore said funding for voting improvements will be largely provided by the federal government under the voting act. The decision of what system to use will ultimately lie with County Auditor Karen Flynn.
Pibel and Gideon emphasized that the federal laws require some form of accessibility, but not necessarily touch-screen machines. Both men recommended the optical-scan system with an additional device for accessibility.
"Optical scan is the fastest, most accurate and leaves a paper trail," Pibel said.
The requirement of a paper trail is a sticky issue because existing electronic machines don't all provide that capability yet. Secretary of State Sam Reed has advocated that a paper audit trail for electronic machines be required by 2006.
An audience member suggested that going to an all-absentee voting system like in Oregon would eliminate electronic voting doubts. Gilmore agreed, but said that would require legislative action.
In a separate issue, Gideon said that Kitsap and five other counties in the state made modifications to the software in their voting systems to accommodate the new consolidated ballot used in the September primary.
While most software modifications are subject to federal review when time allows, this change only went through state and local testing because of the late date of changes to the Washington primary system. Gilmore said federal review is not required of software modifications and added that she was extremely confident in the software, which properly calculated a tie race for a precinct committee officer in the September primary.
Gideon maintained that the software was not secure and expressed concern that it will be used in the general election Nov. 2.