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Delay in reforms fueling doubts on voting machines

Goal is accurate ballot counts

Saturday, November 29, 2003

Star-Ledger Staff

Last year's Help America Vote Act outlined election reforms meant to spare the nation from a repeat of the Florida fiasco of 2000.

But many of those reforms have been on hold since February, awaiting the appointment of a key commission. Senate insiders now say it is unlikely the panel will be in place before early next year.

The delays all but dash any hopes of resolving doubts about the security of electronic voting machines before next year's presidential election, according to computer experts.

Some experts are concerned because states are scrambling for federal money to buy electronic machines that may only conform to 1990 standards. They fear these touch-screen systems may be flawed, and prone to hacking or other chicanery.

"We know clearly those old standards are inadequate," said David Dill, a Stanford University computer scientist who heads VerifiedVoting.org.

Dill's organization wants all electronic voting machines modified to include a paper printout, so voters can verify that their ballots are recorded accurately.

California's secretary of state announced recently that all touch-screen systems used in that state must have such paper trails, starting in 2006. New Jersey has not taken a stance on the issue.

New Jersey and other states are replacing old voting machines with funds from the $3.9 billion Help America Vote Act, which also called for appointment of an Election Assistance Commission by last February.

The commission is supposed to provide for the testing, certification and decertification of voting systems. It is authorized to name a technical panel to review voluntary standards, and to study security risks of electronic machines.

"The Election Assistance Commission established by HAVA ... could address the controversy directly," asserted a report this month by the Congressional Research Service. Touch-screen machines pose "substantially greater" security risks than other voting systems, the report said.

Staffers for Democratic leaders in the Senate said they have been prodding the GOP to call a vote to confirm the commission's four nominees, who include former New Jersey Secretary of State DeForest "Buster" Soaries Jr.

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said a crush of major legislation Medicare, energy and spending bills pushed back the confirmations, probably until January. There is a slim chance the matter could come up when the Senate reconvenes on Dec. 9 from its Thanksgiving break.

Soaries, a Republican, declined to comment. The other nominees are Paul S. DeGregorio, a Republican from Missouri, and Democrats Gracia M. Hillman of the District of Columbia and Raymundo Martinez 3d of Texas.

Bipartisan leaders from the House and Senate made the picks, a process not completed until summer. The White House, in turn, did not forward the names to the Senate for confirmation until Oct. 3. The Senate Rules Committee quizzed the nominees weeks later.

Why so many delays?

"We all here would like to know that," said Brian Hancock of the Federal Election Commission.

"Congress never got serious about this until now," said R. Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, a Houston-based nonprofit that until recently helped oversee voting machine testing programs.

Asked what took President Bush so long, White House spokesman Ken Lisaius said: "I don't have that information."

Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th Dist.), blamed Republicans for foot-dragging.

"With Americans really very concerned with the integrity of our voting process, you would think this would be a priority," said Holt, whose bill to require paper printouts garnered its first GOP co-sponsors last week.

"Naming commissions takes forever," countered John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). It's hard finding trustworthy people with the time and inclination to serve, he said.

If elected officials don't follow through on HAVA, "we will be stuck with old standards with flaws that are now well known," Douglas Jones, a computer scientist at the University of Iowa, said via e-mail.

Meanwhile, Diebold Inc., a leading manufacturer of electronic voting equipment, has backed off threats to sue college students for posting company e-mails on the Web. The stolen e-mails purportedly show vulnerabilities in Diebold touch-screen systems. Court documents made public last week revealed the company considers the postings too numerous to oppose.

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