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Tuesday, 19 September 2006 06:17

Michael Winship: Still a Few Bugs in the System

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by Michael Winship

New York State has another year to go before we start using them new-fangled, electronic voting machines. But if a look at what's happening in other parts of the country is any indication, we are blessed by the delay. Under current circumstances, we should be dragged kicking and screaming into the future.

The computer-based systems are so screwed up, voting absentee may be the only safe way you can be sure your ballot will be counted.

In fact, Denver's Rocky Mountain News reported last week that the Colorado Democratic Party had urged state voters to do just that, "to avoid potential fraud, after a key state official said in a deposition that he certified the computer voting equipment even though he has no college education in computer science and did little security testing."

That's an understatement -- the apparatchik in question said he performed 15 minutes of security checks and made no attempt to hack into the system, which even to an aging Luddite like me would seem to be, like, Plan A from the High Tech Crimestoppers' Notebook.

Thursday's USA Today reported, "The fall elections shape up as the most technologically perilous since 2000, election officials say, because 30% of the nation's voting jurisdictions will be using new equipment. They include large parts of Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, scenes of key Senate races. 'If you're ever going to have a problem, it's going to be that first election,' says Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services.

"Since 2000, nearly half of US counties have switched from punch cards, lever machines and paper ballots to electronic voting or optical-scan ballots read by a computer. They continue to rely on poll workers who are on average 72 years old and lack computer experience."

Sunday's Washington Post chimed in that problems. "have contributed to doubts among some experts about whether the new systems are reliable and whether election officials are adequately prepared to use them.

"In a polarized political climate, in which elections are routinely marked by litigation and allegations of incompetent administration or outright tampering, some worry that voting problems could cast a Florida-style shadow over this fall's midterm elections."

Thus far, some ten states have experienced trouble during this year's primary season. As New Yorkers confidently clicked the pulldown levers of our rickety but relatively efficient machines during last Tuesday's primary, folks in parts of Maryland were stymied when the proper computer access cards weren't delivered to precinct workers in one county. In another, computers messed up party affiliations and were unable to transmit results to the central tabulating operation.

The machine used in Maryland, Diebold's AccuVote-TS, had an especially bad week. In addition to the Maryland snafus, a computer research team at Princeton University performed a security analysis of the AccuVote-TS and reported, "Malicious software running on a single voting machine can steal votes with little if any risk of detection. The malicious software can modify all of the records, audit logs, and counters kept by the voting machine, so that even careful forensic examination of these records will find nothing amiss."

What's more, the team stated, such evil software can be installed surreptitiously in as little as a minute and viruses can spread the program from machine to machine during "normal pre- and post-election activity."

For a visual demonstration, check out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kDEBMp6uwdc&eurl

And, just to add insult to injury, Ed Felton, of the "Freedom to Tinker" blog, accidentally discovered that the access panel door on the AccuVote-TS -- "the door that protects the memory card that stores the votes, and is the main barrier to the injection of a virus -- can be opened with a standard key that is widely available on the Internet." That is, the kind of key you use to open a hotel room mini-bar.

"We bought several keys from an office furniture key shop," Felton writes. "They open the voting machine, too. We ordered another key on eBay from a jukebox supply shop. The keys can be purchased from many online merchants."

Understandably, Diebold is screaming bloody murder, insisting that the security software on the unit Princeton investigated is two years out of date and that proper procedures were not followed. But one thing seems clear: in the face of this and all that's been going on in the wild and wacky world of electronic elections, if New York must make the move, optical scan systems are the way to go.

Rather than use a touchscreen system, like an ATM, optical scanners read a paper ballot that's filled out like an SAT answer form or a lottery ticket. I saw them in operation in Arizona during the 2004 election and to my unschooled eye, although clunkier than the jazzy touchscreens, they seemed to be efficient and relatively secure, although not foolproof. They leave a paper trail for audits and recounts and allow the voter to verify their vote has been correctly recorded.

We just need to move with caution. Former Ohio Governor Dick Celeste, who co-chaired a study of electronic voting with former Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh, told the Washington Post, "It's hard to put a factor on how ill-prepared we are... What we know is, these technologies require significant testing and debugging to make them work."

In truth, I've got nothing against electronic voting per se. As the Princeton researchers said, "We're not opposed to all use of computers in elections but we do insist on having adequate safeguards in place."

I've got nothing against spinach either. But look at the headlines. I want to be sure it's safe, clean and thoroughly debugged before I'm made to eat it.


Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.