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Lawmakers call for paper trail to secure electronic voting


The Orlando Sentinel

WASHINGTON - (KRT) - Up to 50 million Americans will use electronic ballots in November's presidential election - machines that an increasing number of people fear are vulnerable to tampering and errors because they lack back-up to ensure votes are properly counted.

Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., called on Wednesday for a new federal law that would require all electronic voting systems to include a paper trail that the voter can see to check for errors and officials can use in recounts of close elections.

Without a printed record, it would be tougher to catch programming errors or malicious plots to miscount votes on the ATM-like machines - and no way to do a ballot-by-ballot recount if the 2004 presidential election comes down to a handful of disputed votes, as happened in Florida in 2000.

The rush to electronic voting came after Congress pushed states and counties toward more modern balloting machines - methods not prone to the embarrassing "hanging" or "pregnant" chads that for weeks tied up the presidency in piles of Florida's old punch-card ballots.

"Everyone dove head-first into this new technology," said U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, Fla., who chairs the House Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology. "It was one of those knee-jerk reactions. They wanted to beat their chest and say: `There will never be another Florida.' "

Desperate voting officials turned to unproven technology, said Ion Sancho, supervisor of elections in Tallahassee's Leon County, which uses optical scanners - where voters fill out a paper ballot that is scanned electronically - instead of the touch screens.

Fifteen of Florida's 67 counties, and 669 counties nationwide, now use the electronic machines.

Putnam said he will soon hold hearings on the issue. The authors of the original election reform bill that pushed counties toward paperless ballots instead of punch cards said it's too soon to change the system.

But Graham and Clinton - both of whom have their names floated as possible Democratic vice presidential candidates this fall - want faster action. Their bill calls for a paper trail by November.

That's not realistic, said Glenda Hood, who as Florida's secretary of state is in charge of elections statewide. First, she said, legislation must pass, standards for the paper trail must be set, machines must be made to those new standards and certified by states before they can be ordered and poll workers trained to use them.

"Everyone clearly understands and agrees it could not be done by the November election," she said.

U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, Fla., said the problem is bigger than a matter of timing. He took the matter to federal court on Monday, filing a lawsuit against Florida election officials. He contends that the electronic machines with no paper trial deprive voters of their constitutional right to equal protection under the law because their ballots could not individually be inspected in the event of a hand recount, which Florida law requires in very close races.

Graham and Clinton said on Wednesday that fast action is necessary because public faith in elections is at stake.

Graham said the "oops factor" was still alive and well in Florida elections. In Palm Beach County on Tuesday, for example, several voters complained they were unable to cast ballots in all the elections on their touch screens.

"These problems raise the fundamental issue of a citizens' confidence in the voting process," Graham said.

Hood said Florida election supervisors believe the touch screens are safe and effective. They also provide better access to the disabled and can be multilingual.

"We've got success stories," she said. "We haven't received problems with our touch-screen machines at all."

David Bear, spokesman for Diebold Elections Systems Inc., which makes electonric voting machines, said such systems are safe from tampering such as computer hacking. Poll workers keep a close eye on them, he said, and the machines stand alone, not hooked to a network that could give hackers access.

"Electronic voting is safe, secure and accurate," said Bear, whose company has not sold any systems in Florida. "Election officials and voters who have had a chance to use it know that."

Clinton noted that Diebold is run by a Republican fund-raiser - which, she said, "should give us all pause. The system has to be totally above reproach."

Avi Rubin, associate professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, said there are plenty of ways the electronic systems can be tainted. A rogue programmer at one of the manufacturers could install coding into the machines to surreptitiously change votes. And that would likely not be detected, he said. Or the votes could be subject to tampering as they are sent by modem into the board of elections.

Bear said the prospect of some computer programmer adding malicious coding is so unlikely, "the chances are non-existent."

Rubin's computer-security students are assigned to spend the semester dreaming up ways to corrupt the electronic voting systems. "You really can hide anything you want in code without detection," said Rubin, who issued a report last this summer about weakness in the encryption of Diebold machines.

But Hood said the machines have some advantages over other technology. People can't "overvote" - accidentally choose two candidates for one office, such as some voters do when filling out an optical-scan ballot - because the machine won't let them. And if they "undervote," or choose no candidate in a particular race, the machine flags it to make sure that was the voter's intent.

Hood defended her office's decision to waive the state requirements on recounts for counties with electronic systems - the issue at the heart of Wexler's lawsuit. Recounts, she said, aim to decipher voter intent in cases such as stray marks on a ballot or overvotes.

"On the touch screen machines, voter intent is clear," she said.

But Sancho said it's important that all counties be able to do a manual recount if an election is really close. For that, some sort of additional recordkeeping is needed, he said.

Rubin, technical director of the Information Security Institute, agreed.

"Without paper you don't have any audit trail," he said. "You have to trust blindly what these machines say."

Some see similaries between modern touch-screen systems without a paper trail and the old lever-voting machines popular a half-century ago. Those machines - which 270 counties still use - were notorious for easy tampering because they created no back-up record of how voters cast their ballots.

Rubin said he agrees with Hood that changes can't be made before November: "We're stuck now because so many people have spent so much money on insecure machines."

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