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County says test validates electronic voting system
Technology has safeguards to stop fraud, officials say
Houston Chronicle   15 October 2004

Although some experts have said electronic voting systems in other states are vulnerable to fraud, Harris County's machines have many safeguards that would keep out hackers, County Clerk Beverly Kaufman said.
The eSlate machines were tested Thursday at the county Election Technology Center, and they accurately tallied votes, county officials said.

The eSlate system, to be used by the county for the first time in a presidential election on Nov. 2, "is safer (than punch cards) because no human hands touch those ballots after they're cast," Kaufman said.

But the system's critics say it has a major flaw — voters do not receive a printout confirming the computer correctly recorded votes.

"Voters have no assurance their votes were cast as intended. We voters are at the mercy of the election system," said Stan Merriman, who observed the test vote for the county Democratic Party.

In the runup to the presidential election, questions about electronic voting machines' vulnerability to fraud have been raised in many states.

In California, machines were certified, decertified and recertified. Among the recertified machines were eSlate machines used in Orange County.

In Ohio, the secretary of state halted a switch to electronic voting because of concerns over security.

A computer security consultant hired last year to test Diebold machines used in Maryland found holes in the security system, including the Microsoft operating system, The New York Times reported. Diebold has since upgraded security features.

David Beirne, spokesman for the Harris County clerk's office, said eSlate machines, made by Hart Intercivic in Austin, are more secure than Diebold's machines.

County voters will be issued access codes that will allow them to bring up a ballot. The codes are issued randomly, not sequentially.

Votes are stored in three places: the machine itself, a computer connected to it called a judge booth controller and a memory card in the controller.

When the polls close, the controller, which tallies votes on as many as 12 eSlate machines, will be brought to one of four regional vote-counting centers.

A seal locking in the memory card will be removed, and ballot results on the memory card will be downloaded into another computer.

Kaufman said eSlate machines are not hooked up to the Internet and, thus, can't be hacked into online. Hart provides the operating system, not Microsoft, whose operating systems are penetrable by some hackers.

Fraud could happen if all the workers at a polling location agree to issue additional access codes to stuff the ballot box for a particular candidate, Kaufman said. But the odds of such a conspiracy occurring are long — all the workers would have to be in league, she said.

Fraud could occur if Hart Intercivic's software was altered, but the county tries to test eSlate machines to prevent that from happening.

Machines record when they are turned on or altered, Beirne said.

Since 2002, the county has spent $28 million to buy about 9,000 machines, controllers, software and services.

The federal government will reimburse the county for about $6 million, money funneled to communities through the Help America Vote Act of 2002. That legislation was intended to revamp the election system after the presidential election debacle in Florida in 2000.

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