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Electronic votes touch off doubts

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

WASHINGTON Election officials and computer scientists are increasingly concerned that touch-screen electronic voting machines like the ones used in Georgia may be inaccurate and even susceptible to sabotage.

Among some Democrats, there is deep distrust developing about the devices, particularly since a top executive in the voting machine industry is a major fund-raiser for President Bush.

Industry officials insist that electronic balloting is reliable, accurate and secure and will help avert a repeat of the ballot-counting fiasco that held up results in Florida and sent the 2000 presidential election to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Electronic voting is a good thing," said David Bear, spokesman for Ohio-based Diebold Inc., one of four companies that dominate the voting machine industry.

Diebold boasts a significant testimonial from Georgia's top election official, Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who declared the state's conversion to the system "a tremendous success."

Georgia was the first state to adopt electronic voting in every precinct, rolling out its system in the November 2002 election.

Cox championed the $54 million touch-screen system after learning the state had had even more uncounted votes during the 2000 election than Florida.

Electronic plot?

The Diebold system, whose customers include Maryland, California and Kansas, is at the heart of concerns that for months have fueled dire conspiracy theories of a possible electronic coup d'etat.

This fall the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper disclosed that Diebold's chief executive, Walden O'Dell, is one of Bush's top fund-raisers and, in a letter to potential Bush donors, he had underscored his commitment "to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes" to the Republicans.

O'Dell has since expressed regrets for the remarks, saying that while experienced in business, he is "a real novice" in politics. Even so, he has no intention of stopping his fund-raising efforts as a "Pioneer" and "Ranger," designations used by the Bush campaign for elite fund-raisers who collect a minimum of $200,000 and $100,000, respectively. "I am one, and proud of it," O'Dell said in a statement issued by Diebold's corporate headquarters.

Democrats cry foul

O'Dell easily qualifies as a Bush "Pioneer." In July, for example, he had a fund-raiser at his home with Vice President Dick Cheney that netted $500,000.

Democrats cry foul. Presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina today plans to call on Bush to return the money O'Dell has raised for his campaign.

"We now have touch-screen voting machines that some people think are just as bad as a butterfly ballot," Edwards says in a speech prepared for delivery to Florida Democrats. "What makes this worse is that one of George W. Bush's fund-raising Pioneers said he wanted to help Ohio deliver its electoral votes to George Bush."

Sen. Jon Corzine of New Jersey, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said, "Republicans have sunk to a stunning new low."

Traveling the 'Net

The emerging theories of a conspiracy to rig the voting tabulations in 2004 extend well beyond O'Dell's relationship with Bush and other Republicans. The Internet is awash with Web sites devoted to the notion, the most prominent being www.blackboxvoting.com, with accounts about:

• Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel's upset victory in 1996. He ran without disclosing that he had been CEO and chairman of Election Systems & Software, which installed, programmed and operated the state's voting machines. Hagel has denied any wrongdoing.

• The unexpectedly easy Republican victories in Georgia's 2002 election for governor and U.S. Senate, where Diebold had installed its system. Previously favored Democratic incumbents failed to win re-election.

Yet Bobby Kahn, who was chief of staff to ousted Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes, said in a recent e-mail to the Journal-Constitution that he would "love to believe" in a "computer meltdown or a grand conspiracy" causing Barnes' defeat, but rejects both notions. "The count was accurate," Kahn said of the vote.

Computer scientists and voting machine experts are less concerned about O'Dell's political affiliations than about the integrity of the technology being marketed by Diebold and its competitors.

Tests reveal risks

Tests of computerized systems in Ohio this week did little to reassure skeptics. Detroit-based Compuware Corp., in a technical analysis of the four major voting machine manufacturers, identified 57 potential security risks in the software and hardware tested.

The findings prompted Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell to delay plans for having a computerized system in place for the 2004 presidential election. "I will not place these voting devices before Ohio's voters until identified risks are corrected and system security is bolstered," Blackwell said.

For months, computer experts have been warning that the new voting machines are susceptible to the kinds of foul-ups undervotes and misvotes, for example that led to the 2000 Florida election debacle.

Computerized voting systems also may be vulnerable to hackers or scheming programmers bent on stealing an election, some experts warned.

A hacker could add votes to an individual voting terminal and a programmer could a "Trojan horse" program with a hidden code that could change vote totals, then cover its tracks, it has been suggested.

A group of experts recently formed the National Committee for Voting Integrity to draw public attention to their concerns. Some of the voting tabulation technologies being considered by various states "pose a significant risk to the integrity of the democratic process in the United States," the committee warned.

 Staff writer Duane Stanford contributed to this article.

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