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Election fixes stir worries on ballot security   (TX)

ALAN BERNSTEIN     Houston Chronicle     14 November 2007

Johnnie German admitted he was nervous as he used high-security codes to tap into the Harris County elections computer system last week and change some of the results manually.

The system was in good hands as the votes were counted from the sprawling Nov. 6 contests. German is the county's respected administrator of elections, and there were witnesses present as he corrected the vote totals on a sales tax referendum for a fire/ambulance district in the Cypress-Fairbanks area of northwest Harris County.

But German's late-night deed, said by officials to be a first-time event in the six years Harris County has used the eSlate voting system, has rekindled the debate about whether the newest electronic methods for counting votes should be trusted.

What German graphically demonstrated was that with the proper physical and informational access, one person can alter the results of an election in a county of 1.8 million registered voters.

The adjustments also highlighted the fact that, with multiple election boundaries snaking through precincts to separate city voters from county voters and municipal utility districts from emergency services districts, there usually are flaws that put voters in front of the wrong ballot screens.

Which is what happened in Emergency Services District No. 9, where 293 voters went to the polls early but never got to express an opinion on the issue as they voted on state and county bonds and other items because the tax vote didn't appear on their screens. (The tax proposal lost by 3,233 votes.)

The omission of the tax proposal on ballots in parts of three precincts was discovered thanks to an alert from a voter, and Harris County Clerk Beverly Kaufman's staff was able to get the tax question on the right ballots for Election Day but it was too late to have those votes recorded on the main computer.

Instead, they were recorded separately and later added to the totals.

Voters in the emergency district, which includes 11 fire stations serving 250,000 people, never were notified that some of them missed the referendum during early voting or that Election Day votes were segregated.

Regardless, it was up to German and assistant Randy Roberts to combine the segregated totals, printed on computer paper, into the county's final electronic vote tallies after the polls closed on Election Day.

Shocking observation
The county Web site already showed that all precinct totals had been counted; three sheriff's deputies who guarded the counting process on the fourth floor of the County Administration Building in downtown Houston had been sent home.

Also in the locked, glass-walled room were Republican Kaufman and John R. Behrman, a computer expert and longtime election observer representing the Democratic Party. He said he considers Kaufman's staff the most knowledgeable election computer administrators on the continent and does not question their motives.

But Behrman said he was shocked when he saw German use a series of passwords and an "encryption key" a series of numbers on a nail file-size computer memory storage device to reach a computer program that said "Adjustment."

"A hundred percent of precincts reporting, and everything had been distributed to the press," he said. "Then and only then did I see how they were going to do this, and frankly I never thought it was possible.

"Basically it turns out, without regard to any ballots that have been cast, you can enter arbitrary numbers in there and report them out in such a way that, unless you go back to these giant (computer) logs and interpret the logs, you wouldn't know it has been done."

In the two hours it took to enter the 326 segregated votes, the election duo made and corrected keystroke errors, Behrman said.

Computer scientist Daniel Wallach, who started Rice University's Computer Security Lab and was on the task force that recently studied California's electronic voting systems, is skeptical about the eSlate system supplied to Harris County at a cost of $12 million by Austin-based Hart InterCivic.

The "encryption key" code could be extracted from voting equipment at each precinct, according to Wallach, who studied the company's systems in California.

County officials and Hart InterCivic, which also provides its state-certified voting equipment in Fort Bend County and Austin and Fort Worth, said the system merits public confidence because it has multiple layers of secret access codes.

Flexibility needed
"You have to have a system that is flexible enough to deal with those errors," Hart InterCivic spokesman Peter Lichtenheld said.

In the fire/ambulance sales tax election, voters first were left out because information supplied to election officials from Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt's staff covered added streets and other changes only through 1993.

Bettencourt aides said the emergency services district never gave it d data; the district's lawyer Howard Katz said otherwise.

Either way, county voter registration official Ed Johnson said, "There are always little bitty problems in every election."

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