Deep-rooted Voting Irregularities Persist, Watchdogs Say
by Catherine Komp The New Standards News
Nov 10 - Although this was an "off-term" election year, voting-rights advocates, computer scientists, and politicians watched the process closely as more districts used electronic voting machines, which many blame for irregularities during the 2004 presidential election.
Many of those same problems reportedly occurred again this year, when an estimated 30 percent of voters used touch-screen voting machines technically known as direct recording electronic (DRE) systems the majority manufactured by the companies Diebold, Sequoia, and Election Systems & Software.
According to local media reports, officials at a precinct in Fulton County, Georgia removed three machines after voters said their votes registered for different candidates. In Roanoke County, Virginia, people at several precincts reported that their ion for democratic candidates registered as votes for republicans in both the governor?s and state attorney general race. And in several Ohio precincts, electronic machine malfunctions and problems getting machines running forced a number of polling places to open late.
As groups continue to monitor this technology, civil rights and public advocacy organizations say voter intimidation and suppression continue to block would-be voters from the polls. Strict identification requirements, lack of ballots and instructions in various languages, and absentee restrictions along with intimidation and misinformation campaigns continue to disenfranchise Americans.
Federal Investigation Confirms E-voting Problems
A recent General Accountability Office investigation confirms that security, design, and reliability flaws do exist with current electronic voting machines and systems. The 95-page report concluded that with certain electronic voting machines, ballots and audit logs could be modified without detection, computer passwords were easily guessed, and system locks were easily picked.
The GAO, which is the investigative arm of Congress, also found that vendors installed uncertified machines, local polling places did not correctly configure the systems, and operational failures occurred on Election Day 2004. Most disturbingly, the report states that with some electronic systems it was possible to alter how a ballot looks and works so that votes for one candidate could be recorded for another.
A bipartisan group of US Congress members requested the GAO investigation in May 2004, including Congress member Henry Waxman (D-CA), who said the security of electronic voting machines needs to be improved quickly.
"The report makes clear that there is a lack of transparency and accountability in electronic voting systems ? from the day that contracts are signed with manufacturers to the counting of electronic votes on Election Day," said Waxman in a statement. "State and local officials are spending a great deal of money on machines without concrete proof that they are secure and reliable. American voters deserve better."
Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that in the rush to qualify for federal funding under the Help America Vote Act, which was passed in the wake of the contested 2000 election, many states and counties bought new machines before security and reliability issues could be addressed. She said there was a three-month lapse between the date that HAVA funding was issued and federal standards for voting systems were established.
Coney added that the HAVA funding for new voting systems was a "one-shot deal," leaving states and counties with the bill for replacing faulty equipment and providing upkeep for software and computer systems.
E-System Transparency and Certification
Another major criticism is that corporations are tightly guarding their proprietary software, shielding methods for registering, storing, and tabulating votes from public oversight.
Dr. Aviel Rubin, professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University, is concerned with this lack of transparency. "For starters, the manufacturers are not allowing public review of their systems and software," Rubin told The NewStandard. "Furthermore, I can think of nothing less transparent than a computer without a paper record. Can you look at a computer and tell me what's going on inside it? I cannot, and I have a Ph.D. in computer science."
Rubin is also the technical director of the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute, which was awarded a $7.3 million National Science Foundation grant last summer to improve the "reliability and trustworthiness" of electronic voting systems. Rubin, a vocal critic of Diebold voting machines, made headlines in 2003 after he studied leaked source code for that company?s software and exposed numerous security flaws. He says that certification programs need to be standardized, that source code should be analyzed carefully, and that security "red teams" should be hired to try hacking the systems to find weaknesses.
"We need to have more confidence in the security of these systems, and the current system where vendors pay their own certifiers who check them against outdated standards, is not going to cut it," said Rubin.
The GAO report echoed these concerns about system certification. Currently, only 13 states require national certification testing of their electronic voting machines. Beyond this, the GAO report states that a national accrediting program should be established to evaluate the non-federal, independent organizations that will be certifying the systems. Both of these responsibilities fall under the presidential-appointed Elections Assistance Commission, created by HAVA to help states with elections improvements.
But the GAO report states that efforts by the EAC to improve standards for security and reliability are falling short of upgrading the election process before the 2006 federal polls. The GAO adds that current problems, if left unresolved, may affect the outcomes of elections, as some allege happened in Ohio during the 2004 presidential campaign.
However, US Representative John Conyers (D-MI), who also called for the GAO investigation, told TNS that the EAC is under-funded and does not have the resources to satisfy the GAO recommendations.
"What?s happening is that we?re moving at a pace so slow, as of this election next year, we won?t have complied with much of the things that we know are problematic," Conyers said.
Verified Voting and Optical Scans
While the GAO report may convince lawmakers and elections officials of the serious problems with new electronic systems, some voting technology experts say it fails to recommend one of the most crucial safeguards: voter-verified paper ballots that create a hard copy record of each vote.
Pam Smith, national coordinator for Verfiedvoting.org, an organization promoting transparent elections, admits that voter-verified paper ballots will not protect voters if machines fail to boot-up or power outages occur. But, she said, "if you have [electronic] voting systems up and running, you need to have voting-verification element in there."
Smith continued, "The key is having the hard copy, because electronic records are subject to the same kinds of things that happen with your own computer: data gets lost and scrambled, there are glitches with software and it doesn?t always behave the way it?s supposed to."
Twenty-five states have passed legislation requiring voter-verified paper ballots, and fourteen others have bills pending, though Smith says many districts will not implement the systems until after the 2006 federal elections.
Verifiedvoting.org, founded by Stanford University Computer Science Professor David Dill, also advocates for optical scan systems, the more widely-used form of electronic voting in which voters record their ions on paper, and results are tabulated by a computer, much like standardized tests. Smith says these systems are less expensive, easier to use, and more reliable.
While the GAO?s report found more problems with touch-screen machines, it stated that someone with access to an optical scanning device could also falsify election results without detection.
Conyers said establishing a paper-verified trial is one his priorities. But he said security concerns are also important.
Conyers introduced legislation last February to amend HAVA to require verified ballots, standards for voting systems and poll workers, and open source software for voting software. The Voting Opportunity and Technology Enhancement Rights Act of 2005 would also establish federal criminal penalties for any person or corporation "using unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting voting in federal elections."
Conyers is trying to hold hearings on the bill, which Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) has also introduced in the Senate, but he said that the Republicans who control Congress are not eager to move forward.
Beyond New Technology
While much attention is focused on technological problems with electronic voting machines, rights activists are also addressing the historic problems that keep people from ever reaching the voting booth. Over the last five years, numerous cases of suppression and intimidation have been reported across the country including: flyers and signs giving false information about voter eligibility, polling places and election dates; physical intimidation from law enforcement or people impersonating law enforcement; long waiting lines; and polling places opening late or closing early.
Civil rights groups are also working to stop legislative measures that limit voter access, especially as some states enact strict voter identification requirements. Julie Fernandez, senior policy analyst and special counsel for the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said Georgia?s requirement that all voters have a state-issued ID would heavily affect low-income people, seniors and people of color who often do not drive or own a vehicle, and therefore have no license.
As previously reported by TNS, a federal judge recently barred Georgia from enforcing the ID law for this year?s elections, stating it amounted to an "unconstitutional poll tax."
Fernandez said inadequate language assistance is also a problem in immigrant communities where there may be limited English proficiency. And, she said, some states are implementing new requirements on absentee ballots and same-day balloting that are difficult for many people to meet.
"The logic behind it is that it?s a way to combat fraud, but essentially it ends up being another barrier, another hoop that people have to jump through," said Fernandez. "If you?re working shift work, or you?re working hourly wage, your ability to get out to vote on a work day is very much diminished. So in many jurisdictions and counties around the country, you rely on the ability to effectively use the absentee ballot process."
Smith of Verfiedvoting.org will be reviewing reports of voting malfeasance in this year?s election collected through the Election Protection Program and its toll-free OUR-VOTE hotline. The program was created by a coalition of legal, civil rights, and social justice groups to help document and thwart voting irregularities after widespread problems were documented in the 2000 and 2004 elections.
Though this year?s turnout was smaller and the hotline received less publicity, Smith says the organization?s work to educate and register voters, and file litigation if necessary, will continue to grow and develop in anticipation of the 2006 federal elections.