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Evans: Elections must be verifiable

November 16, 2003

So, are you ready to hand off the security of your precious vote to a bunch of software programmers who work for huge corporations? You, the average voter, could soon find that you have no way to verify that the votes you cast on fancy-schmancy "touch-screen" voting terminals are what you intended.

Sound alarmist? It's happening across the United States under provisions of the Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in response to the 2000 Florida election debacle. HAVA, as currently written, is no solution.

Under HAVA, the federal government has mandated that all counties replace "punch-card" systems — the one we've had here has worked well, without any "chad" problems — with new technologies. Many counties are diving headlong into "direct recording electronic" systems, which means touch screens. HAVA requires only that at least one DRE terminal be available in every precinct, to accommodate disabled voters.

Touch screens have become a way of life. It's how we get money from ATMs, even check in for plane flights. But the tech is not ready for the prime time of elections. It remains woefully vulnerable to tampering and inscrutable to anyone but a computer expert with access to a company's source code.

Alas, many county election officials with limited knowledge (if that) of computer security and programming are dutifully lining up for DRE systems.

There is, however, an increasing swell of opposition, and it's coming not from fanatical Luddites, but from the people who actually understand the dangers: Computer geeks and academics (who have consequently earned the wrath of the giant voting technology corporations). They are concerned about security, and the fierce efforts of those companies to keep their software systems secret, which means even noble geeks can't sniff out the flaws.

Here's the basic problem (real world examples abound; I'm no computer expert, and can't get into the frightening details here, but if you want to learn more, I recommend checking out www.verifiedvoting.org and www.blackboxvoting.com): An able programmer easily can set up a machine to record a vote differently than what the voter intends, and even to spit out a different result on a "receipt." Unlike with a good, old-fashioned paper ballot, most of us can't peer into the electronic guts of a computer and detect such machinations.

"The record of voter intent should be made on a piece of paper, not a computer," says Joe Pezzillo, with the local group, Citizens for Verifiable Voting (see http://bcv.booyaka.com). And no, he doesn't work for a paper company: He's a computer guy, affable and concerned.

Most citizens of Boulder County probably have no idea that for the last several months, the county clerk's office has been going through the process of choosing a new voting system. There have been public meetings, but the media have given them only scant attention.

Now, the clerk's office is poised to make a recommendation on a new voting system in December. It's time to let our county commissioners, who will have the final say, know that we demand an accountable, verifiable system.

Thankfully, at least one commissioner sees the danger.

"I believe this is the single most important decision I will make while on the board. The issue here is the purity must be verifiable

of our elections," says commission chair Paul Danish, who has seen all the systems being considered by the county.

Like Pezzillo's group, Danish believes we need a paper ballot so we can verify and recount all elections. Optically scanned, if necessary, and some DREs should be available for the disabled, but the system must be transparent to the average voter. There are such systems available that would comply with HAVA.

There are a few hurdles, even if Boulder County does the right thing. Colorado law now mandates that any recount be conducted with the same system that counted the initial election. That's more than useless: Same ballots, same system, ta da! — same result.

"That law turns the concept of a recount into a grotesque joke," says Danish. He should know: He lost a 1994 primary in a state House race by a paltry four votes, which, of course, a recount confirmed. "I never got to see the majority of the ballots in that election," he says.

The Legislature ought to fix that glitch, and soon.

At the federal level, HAVA needs some serious tweaking. Though it's an imperfect vehicle, House Resolution 2239 by Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey would require a separate printed record of every vote for auditing purposes, among other things. If the purity and integrity of elections concerns you, call U.S. Rep. Mark Udall's office at (202) 225-2161 and ask him to work for passage of H.R. 2239 (a committee chair already has vowed to kill it).

If it were only a few whacked conspiracy theorists (and there are some) sounding the alarm, that would be one thing. But when the people who really know this stuff, the code writers, are sending up flares, shouldn't we trust their judgment more than that of harried elections officials with little expertise who have been fed a soothing party line by huge corporations with a vested interests?

Contact Clay Evans at (303) 473-1352 or evansc@dailycamera.com.

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