Va. official: E-voting security not easily breached
Citizens' Voice Staff 02/17/2005
Judy Flaig remembers sitting at her desk, watching as technical employees randomly walked by and tried to hack into the electronic voting machine she was recommending to Fairfax County, Va., residents.
County officials in the Virginia looked at many issues, including security when making the switch from levers to electronic voting machines in 2003.
"There's a lot of nonsense on the Internet about how easy it is to hack into the computer," said Flaig, election manager for Fairfax County. "But the machines aren't on a network, so it just sits alone. To break into it, someone would have to physically break into the precinct and break the computer open."
Fairfax County government officials were looking into the WINvote wireless system, which Luzerne County officials are now considering.
Federal law requires electronic voting machines at all precincts where punchcards or levers used to be the norm by the 2006 primary election.
For the last few months, a Luzerne County committee has been analyzing different electronic voting machines.
The committee met last Friday to look at WINvote. And while one attendee was concerned about the safety of wireless technology, there should be no worries, according to Howard Van Phelt, president and chief executive officer of WINvote's maker, Texas-based Advanced Voting Solutions.
WINvote uses encryption technology and digital signatures to ensure it's tamper proof. A card key closes voting polls so they cannot be tampered with after the election. The wireless technology then beams the results to one computer for electronic tallying.
Accidents can sometimes be as big an issue as tampering, Van Phelt said.
"What we're trying to do is to take the burden off the poll-worker and put it on the system," Van Phelt said. "Even though poll workers are honest people, they sometimes make honest mistakes."
Luzerne County Commissioner Todd Vonderheid agrees.
"When you've been working at the polls all day, sometimes that '3' can look like an '8' at night," Vonderheid said of the county's current lever voting system.
Selection committee chairwoman Maryanne Petrilla said there are other issues to consider as new vendors, wired and wireless, pitch their products to the county.
"We need to take into account the population of senior citizens in Luzerne County is high, so we need to make sure it's user-friendly," Petrilla said. "We also need to make sure the machines will not put us into debt."
About 20 percent of the county's population is 65 or older, which is 4 percent higher than the state average, according to 2000 U.S. Census data.
The two replacements the county has examined cost about $3,000 and $7,500 per machine. The county applied for a $3 million state grant to help pay for the replacements, but Vonderheid said he would not be surprised if the county still had to pay 20 percent of the total cost, which remains unknown.
County officials estimated they will need, depending on the replacement, between 500 to 1,500 machines, said Leonard Piazza, director for Luzerne County Bureau of Elections.
Piazza said the county is examining two types of electronic voting machines, touch-screen versus full-screen. Full-screen machines typically take up the space of about a 30-inch television, while touch screens are about the size of a laptop computer.
Total cost, however, does not end with the purchase of the machines.
Commissioner Stephen Urban said the county previously spent up to $80,000 to transport the lever machines to precincts.
Depending on the committee's recommendation, the county could save money on future transportation costs. The savings could be used to train inspectors on the new machines.
"One of the things we've been looking at, is there has never really been a check (of votes)," Urban said. "Those numbers could have been misheard or added wrong. The data is not entered into a spreadsheet until Friday of election week.
"On election night, there used to be a long wait to get the results, but now you can just plug the phone line in and get quick results."
Some opponents to electronic voting have said there needs to be a documented paper trail for each vote, but Urban disagrees.
"I've heard that point mentioned before, but you don't get that now," Urban said. "You go into the machine, pull the handle and it goes up."
Vonderheid said that some people are computer savvy, but that doesn't mean those who aren't should be penalized.
"It's important the people who aren't as trusting of the system to have a documented piece of paper," Vonderheid said.
And while user-friendliness, especially among senior citizens, remains a key issue for Luzerne County officials, Flaig said the transition has been smooth among all age groups in Virginia.
"We found people tend to underestimate senior citizens," Flaig said. "We see the old ladies using the brown registry at Macy's all the time. This is the way the world is going: They're (touch screens) going to be everywhere."