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Voter-verified ballots: The code breakers

By Jill S. Farrell
web posted October 4, 2004

Approximately 30 per cent of the nation's votes could be cast using controversial electronic voting machines this November. The major complaint regarding the touch-screen -- Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) -- voting machine systems is their lack of a verifiable paper trail.

Diebold's voting machine systemComputer experts -- such as Peter G. Neumann, a computer scientist at SRI International, Professors Aviel Rubin of Johns Hopkins University and Dan Wallach of Rice University and Los Alamos National Laboratory computer scientist Charlie Strauss – along with voting experts and voters rights groups see several potential dangers inherent in this paperless system. Machines malfunction. Engineers and programmers make mistakes. (Since DRE companies use proprietary software code that is necessarily complex, it is nearly impossible to prove the absence of faulty or malicious code.) Operators make errors. Sometimes honest mistakes occur…and sometimes there is sabotage.

Without an actual paper ballot the voting process is completely taken out of the hands of our trusted neighbors (often sworn poll workers) and entirely put into the hands of a very elite few computer code savvy individuals who are, after all, only human and possess character flaws of the same type and of equal quantity as the rest of us mere mortals.

It is impossible to take human beings entirely out of the process, which seems to be the goal to the extent possible. Even if it were possible to get pesky humans out of the mix, machines are as only as good as human beings can make them. As Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) recently witnessed when she accidentally brushed an incorrect key (and launched into the national spotlight), DREs can be very sensitive and as flawed as any other voting equipment.

The amount and types of potential interference with a paperless system are almost beyond count. Various deliberate and/or accidental problems can and will emerge -- from the first chip, to the first line of software code -- all the way through to unplugging the machine at the end of Election Day. As has been demonstrated in Maryland, Florida, Georgia and elsewhere, even simple physical security for the machines and their components is a huge concern – during demonstrations and extended dormant periods as well as the several hours after set up and before the first vote is cast.

Zogby, Gallup and others are saying that this will be a close election. If election rigging is suspected (and it is always suspected!), it will be devastating to both the national economy and morale. Without tangible evidence, captious citizens may demand, among a host of possibilities, a complete re-vote. That is not a viable option since most elections can be legally held only once. Indeed, if a re-vote were possible, no group would be happy with the new result.

Even with an audit system in place it is difficult to get a fair election result in some parts of the country. Some cities have citizens so devoted to the political process that they regularly vote from the grave. Imagine the mischief that could be created in a system that is even less transparent than one we have been using. It is not too difficult to imagine a disgruntled programmer typing in a trap door that will permit tampering at will. Throughout all of human history there have been rogues willing to win at any price as well as those who create havoc for havoc's sake.

Michael Shamos of Carnegie Mellon University, a proponent of the paperless system, recently said, "The methods for testing and certifying voting machines in this country is dysfunctional. That by itself does not mean the machines are insecure." He also said, "I have no fundamental problem with having a paper trail as evidence to be used in the event of a conflict between the paper record and the electronic one. But that is the beginning of the forensic investigation, not the end of it."

Why the rush to transition to new technology? After America's adventures with "chad" in Florida during the 2000 elections, Congress passed The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) in the hope of avoiding a similar tragedy in the future by mandating reform of the voting process. Though well intended, HAVA has spawned questionable results. As with any law, the key is in the interpretation.

Among other things HAVA calls for "a permanent paper record with a manual audit capacity."

Many proponents of touch-screen voting systems, such as Diebold Election Systems, are claiming that a simple printout at the end of the day will suffice. It is strongly arguable that a recount in this scenario would not supply new information but simply provide an identical report.

In one of the most advanced countries in the world, we are faced with capricious county-by-county procedures, well intended but often poorly trained poll workers, ambivalent funding and flawed registration systems. Add to that a dash of intimidation, general corruption and voting machines of questionable virtue. Viola! Election Day 2004! The flaws in our voting system are giving rise to fears that many thousands of votes will be rejected, lost or nullified by illegitimate votes. Those with a sense of humor have referred to the 2004 elections as "faith-based" voting.

In an election with wide, comfortable margins these flaws could be of little concern. However, invisible electrons will not calm the masses in a disputed election. "Trust me" has become a cynical phrase in today's society with none of its former reassurance.

In at least 20 States legislation has been introduced requiring a paper ballot.

A shining example is Nevada, which in July became the first State to certify and thereby meet federal qualification for the voter-verified paper audit trail (V-PAT) printer to be used on touch-screen voting machines. If a voter sees a mistake, the vote can be voided and re-cast. The final printed receipt is then archived as a permanent record of the vote. In the event of a recount, the paper ballot can be compared to the computer tally. All of the advantages of the DREs, such as handicap accessibility, are maintained and a paper record is produced as a safeguard. The new voting system was declared secure by the Nevada Gaming Control Board's Electronic Services Division, which verifies the security of the State's gaming industry.

The Kerry campaign is prepared to send thousands of lawyers to descend on every district with possible voting problems. The Republicans also have attorneys at the ready to investigate voter registration and voting anomalies. Both sides seem to be gearing up for a titanic struggle.

Although the federal elections are now too near for the sort of major overhaul that electronic voting requires, most paperless voting machine concerns have been addressed in legislation introduced in the House and Senate. This legislation will ensure future elections are more secure and can be verified. Rapid bipartisan support should be given to Rep. Rush Holt's (D-NJ) Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2003, H.R. 2239, and to Senator John Ensign's (R-NV) Voting Integrity and Verification Act of 2004, S. 2437.

We can have a receipt at the ATM machine. We can have a receipt at the grocery store. There is no justifiable reason why we cannot have a receipt, aka a ballot, at the polling place. The votes on paper ballots must be regarded as the definitive legal votes, taking precedence over electronic records or counts. We need to keep elections in the voting booth and out of the courtrooms. Voters, rather than rancorous campaign spokesmen, public relations people, attorneys and judges must determine the outcome of an election. 

Jill S. Farrell is Director of Communications of the Free Congress Foundation.

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