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Voting machine glitches concern computer experts

By Toby Eckert

March 15, 2004

WASHINGTON – With memories of Florida's 2000 election debacle still fresh, an estimated 50 million American voters in November will cast their ballots using electronic voting machines similar to the ones that posed problems in San Diego and other California counties in the March 2 primary election. 

Some computer experts say the machines are vulnerable to glitches and tampering that could make Florida's election difficulties in 2000 look tame, especially if the presidential race is as close as many analysts predict.

"I think we might be on track for some problems in 2004," said Doug Chapin, director of the nonpartisan Election Reform Information Project. "The potential for controversy exists partly because there's been so much change, but also because there are so many people looking for trouble, they might find it."

The manufacturers say they have taken steps to fix technical problems and that human error is to blame for many of the difficulties. In San Diego County, more than one-third of the polling places opened late March 2 because a key component of voting machines made by Diebold Election Systems lost battery power.

"In November of 2004, we will see more accurate elections, less ambiguity in what takes place," predicted Alfie Charles, a spokesman for Oakland-based Sequoia Voting Systems. "The technology and administration will continue to improve as election officials become more comfortable with the new technology."

Some critics are calling on election officials to put the machines in storage and use paper ballots that can be optically scanned. Others, including members of Congress, are insisting that the machines be equipped with printers that will allow voters to verify their choices and create a paper trail if results are contested.

"We can't ever go through what we went through in 2000," Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said last week when touting legislation that would require such printouts.

But with less than eight months to go before the Nov. 2 election, it is doubtful such fixes can be made in time.

"I think we're in a tight spot," said Avi Rubin, a computer scientist at Johns Hopkins University who was among the first to identify potential security problems with Diebold's equipment. The company disputes the study.

"States were too aggressive in pursuing these machines before all of the problems were understood," Rubin said. "The best we can do is be vigilant and intensively train all (election) judges."

The rush to embrace new voting technology was prompted by the Florida recount in 2000, which highlighted problems with widely used punch-card voting systems. The nation watched as election officials in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties argued over how to interpret "pregnant," "dimpled" and "hanging" chads on punch-card ballots.

The U.S. Supreme Court halted the recount after 36 days and George W. Bush was declared the winner in Florida by 537 votes, putting him in the White House instead of Democrat Al Gore.

In the aftermath of that bitter drama, several states, including California, phased out punch-card voting. Congress responded with the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which required states to make several changes in voting and provided federal funds to buy equipment.

About 20 percent of the $3.86 billion Congress authorized has been doled out, and a federal commission to oversee implementation of the law didn't open its doors until January, Chapin said.

Nonetheless, many jurisdictions have switched to electronic voting machines like San Diego County's or optical-scan systems that tally paper ballots filled in by voters. According to a recent survey by Election Data Services, a consulting firm, 55.7 million registered voters are expected to use optical scan systems in November and 50 million will use electronic machines.

The track record of the technology appears mixed. Several counties in California, Georgia and Maryland experienced problems with the machines during the 10-state "Super Tuesday" primaries March 2. They ranged from power failures and frozen screens to poll workers giving voters incorrect codes that determined which races they could vote in.

Things went more smoothly the following week when four Southern states, including Florida, held primaries.

The biggest problem in Florida occurred in the state's panhandle. Voting in Bay County was suspended when Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, who ped out of the Democratic presidential race in January, opened a large lead over Sen. John Kerry, the front-runner for the party's nomination.

The problem was traced to a software glitch in the county's optical-scan system.

"We had a very successful election. It was very smooth around the state," said Jenny Nash, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State, which oversees elections.

Some observers say the primaries, and the 2002 elections, were meager proving grounds for the equipment, because far fewer voters turned out in comparison with presidential election years. That was especially true in most of the states that voted after Kerry had essentially locked up the nomination March 2.

"I just have to surmise that in many cities and states, the first time people will be using this new equipment is Nov. 2. A lot of people just don't show up for primaries," said Rebecca Mercuri, a research fellow at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and a critic of electronic voting machines.

A smattering of election results have been questioned because of the machines, ranging from 2002 Senate and gubernatorial races in Georgia to a state legislative contest in Florida and a school board election in suburban Philadelphia.

While no one has proven the machines were faulty or tampered with in those instances, the concerns of some Democrats were stoked when the chief executive of Ohio-based Diebold, Walden O'Dell, wrote in an invitation to a Republican fund-raiser he hosted that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes for the president next year."

Walden has since said he regrets the statement and will lower his political profile. He told The Plain Dealer of Cleveland that he "wouldn't and couldn't" try to manipulate the election.

Many lawmakers and advocacy groups have been pressing for printers to be added to the voting machines by Nov. 2 so voters will be able to verify their ballots. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., has filed a federal lawsuit to require printers in Florida.

The prime sponsors of the Help America Vote Act, including Rep. Robert Ney, R-Ohio, have resisted such moves. In a recent letter to fellow lawmakers, they said security issues need to be examined more closely "before Congress begins imposing new requirements just months before the 2004 presidential and congressional elections."

California regulations require voting machines to begin providing printouts by 2006.

Diebold, Sequoia and other manufacturers said their machines already allow ballot images to be printed for audits and recounts.

"There's a myriad level of checks and balances that are built around the system, which include the election officials and the election rules and laws," said David Bear, a spokesman for Diebold.

Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, said, "Those are not useful audit tools because the voter did not verify the ballot. Without a paper record that the voter has inspected directly, we have no way to verify that the vote is accurate."

Even if such a step is mandated, many observers doubt it could be accomplished in time for the election. The federal government has not certified any printing technology, a process that could take months if not years.

"I would prefer a voter-verified paper trail, but I don't think we will have one by November," Florida Democratic Party Chairman Scott Maddox said. "All we can do is monitor it very closely, and we intend to do that."

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