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Critics fear that when election results are transmitted via modem, a skilled computer hacker could manipulate votes.




Voting machines taking heat

Critics say touch-screen systems lack a paper trail, among other things.

After the 2000 election turned Florida's punch-card ballots into a national punch- line, state officials spent millions of dollars on high-tech electronic voting machines.

But a growing number of critics have local officials around the country wondering whether electronic voting machines -- like the ones used in Charlotte, Sarasota and Manatee counties -- were impulse purchases they will come to regret.

Commissioners in Miami- Dade and Broward counties recently announced that they are reviewing their new systems because the machines don't give voters a paper record of their selection. Some say the paper receipt is a key ingredient to preventing voter fraud.

Maryland stalled a $55.6 million purchase of voting machines so an independent testing company could review vulnerabilities in the systems. The results of the tests released Thursday included more than 300 security flaws in voting systems made by Diebold Elections Systems Inc., the company that supplied Manatee County's voter machines.

The report echoes many of the criticisms that computer experts have published in studies of their own over the last few months.


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Some touch-screen systems are unable to trace votes if the computers are tampered with or malfunction.

Among them:

  • The lack of a paper trail in some touch-screen systems means there's no way to trace votes if the computers are tampered with or malfunction. That could be solved with a voter receipt.

  • When election results are transmitted via modem, a skilled computer hacker has an opportunity to manipulate votes.

  • In some cases, companies that created the voting systems have been allowed to install software on voting machines, opening up the election process to tampering by outsiders.

    Electronic voting converts say the machines are safe and far superior to anything used in the past. Elections supervisors in Charlotte, Manatee and Sarasota counties, for example, say the success of the 2002 election was proof there is no reason to worry and that changes aren't needed.

    In fact, even critics of the new system concede there are no proven instances of someone hacking into a system and changing the outcome of an election.

    But there is a growing contingent who say the electronic system is ripe for corruption or malfunction.

    That fear was seeded in the 2002 primary, when thousands of Broward and Miami-Dade voters experienced errors with their voting machines, or had their votes ignored by a computer.

    Broward County Commissioner John Rodstrom said that when his wife went to the polls in 2002, she pressed the screen to vote for one candidate, and the machine showed she was voting for another. That was a common problem in Broward.

    In Dade, computer tallies did not count votes from several precincts. A backup check of the computerized system revealed the mistakes.

    "We're learning there are some glitches with the system. Add that to the fact that someone could hack into it, and that's a problem," Rodstrom said. "Politicians are hearing these horror stories and saying, 'Gee, we need to rethink this.' "

    How safe are they?

    The 2000 presidential election was a lesson for Florida's election officials, and for its voters.

    Error-prone punch-card ballots always had been problematic. Voters failed to pierce the card completely, or punched two holes on the same line.

    In a typical election, a few thousand such mistakes wouldn't affect the outcome. But the razor-thin race between Al Gore and George W. Bush put a spotlight on every hanging chad.

    After the election, new state and federal laws forced election supervisors to get modern systems. Florida led the way. Three years after Bush was elected, every county in Florida has electronic voting.

    Johns Hopkins University professor Avi Rubin, who has studied and written about security problems with the new systems, said the rush to get electronic voting in place may have compromised security.

    "You need to design electronic systems with a lot of care," Rubin said. "There should not have been a rush to market. The whole system needs to be looked at."

    Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Bob Sweat points out that no system is foolproof.

    A determined computer hacker, a corrupt elections bureaucrat or a natural disaster could short-circuit safeguards on any voting system and lead to inaccurate or incomplete results.

    But the same is true of punch-card ballots. Someone with ill intent, and with the right access, could find a way to stuff a ballot box or to make certain ballots disappear.

    Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent said even the old punch cards relied on software to tabulate votes.

    "If someone wanted to change the software with the punch-card system, they could have," Dent said. "There is no perfect election. They all have their little foibles."

    The question being raised about modern voting systems isn't if they can be corrupted, it's if they can be corrupted more easily and with less potential for detection. And ultimately, were they worth the billions spent nationwide to get rid of old voting machines.

    Bev Harris, a Seattle-based investigative writer known as the Erin Brockovich of electronic voting, says no.

    She points out that she accidentally found key information about Diebold's voter system by surfing the Internet. That information, including source codes and passwords, later was used by computer scientists at Johns Hopkins and Rice universities to expose how easily elections could be rigged under the electronic systems.

    "It's just like an embezzler who wants to find a way around a financial system," said Harris, who is publishing a book, "Black Box Voting," on her investigation. "A hacker can find their way around this if they want."

    The new computer systems are most vulnerable if they are connected to phone lines or to the Internet. Florida election officials have strict guidelines that are supposed to keep local election computers isolated from the outside world.

    But most counties open up their voting machines to potential hackers when they transmit precinct results to a central computer on election night.

    The systems used in Charlotte, Manatee and Sarasota transmit over phone lines.

    State election officials say Florida's counties have rigorous standards that would prevent any outside hacker from changing the outcome of an election.

    Mike Lindsay, a senior management analyst with the Department of State, said Florida tests every system before approving it for use by counties. The state hires computer experts to make sure the systems aren't susceptible to hackers, he said.

    In addition, each county has ways to verify vote tallies. Counts are taken off each voting machine before any results are transmitted over a modem.

    So even if the modem results were hacked into and altered, election officials would know to discard them when they compared the numbers to the precinct count.

    Critics not soothed

    Individual voter receipts would go a long way toward quashing the uproar over electronic voting machines. Critics say if there was a problem, the paper could be used to reconstruct an election.

    At least 15 Florida counties, including Sarasota and Charlotte, have systems that leave no paper trail. The majority, including Manatee, use the optical scan system, which still requires voters to mark a piece of paper with their choices.

    U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-New Jersey, started pushing a bill in May that would require every county in the nation to keep a printed copy of each vote cast.

    Holt, a physicist, got the idea after some of the nations top computer scientists shared their concerns about the security of new voting systems that relied almost solely on computers.

    "If there is no paper trail, how do you know later in the day that there wasn't a computer malfunction that erased your vote," said Jim Kapsis, communications director for Holt. "It's why you balance your checkbook. You don't just leave it up to computers."

    To supporters of the new systems, creating a paper trail is a quaint idea that would do little more than add costs to already expensive elections.

    Dent said she's heard that retrofitting the ES&S machines with the paper receipt could cost anywhere between $500 and $3,000 per machine.

    "If we're going to use paper, then what was the point of using machines?" Dent said. "We might as well go back to the punch cards."

    Anderson, Charlotte's supervisor of elections, pointed out that the old, pull-handle voting machines didn't keep paper records of each vote either.

    "There is always someone who isn't going to trust a system," Anderson said. "But the voters like these (touch-screen machines). We've gotten a great reception from voters."

    Last modified: September 28. 2003 12:00AM

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