J-D marston on Sat, 29 Mar 2003 03:31:46 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Voting Machines and Fraud

The mechanisms of demockracy today. Can anyone illuminate the techological
end of these machines? This article leaves alot to be desired on the
material end, but interesting nonetheless. Those darned computers.    --

New Voting Systems Assailed 
Computer Experts Cite Fraud Potential 
By Dan Keating

As election officials rush to spend billions to update the country's voting
machines with electronic systems, computer scientists are mounting a
challenge to the new devices, saying they are less reliable and less secure
from fraud than the equipment they are replacing.

Prompted by the demands of state and federal election reforms, officials in
Maryland, Georgia, Florida and Texas installed the high-tech voting systems
last fall. Officials in those states, and other proponents of electronic
voting, said the computer scientists' concerns are far-fetched.

"These systems, because of the level of testing they go through, are the
most reliable systems available," said Michael Barnes, who oversaw
Georgia's statewide upgrade. "People were happy with how they operated."

In Maryland, "the system performed flawlessly in the two statewide
elections last year," said Joseph Torre, the official overseeing the
purchase of the state's new systems. "The public has a lot of confidence in
it, and they love it." 

But the scientists' campaign, which began in California's Silicon Valley in
January, has gathered signatures from more than 300 experts, and the
pressure has induced the industry to begin changing course.

Electronic terminals eliminate hanging chads, pencil erasure marks and the
chance that a voter might accidentally select too many candidates. Under
the new systems, voters touch the screen or turn a dial to make their
choices and see a confirmation of those choices before casting their votes,
which are tallied right in the terminal. Recounts are just a matter of
retrieving the data from the computer again. The only record of the vote is
what is stored there.

Critics of such systems say that they are vulnerable to tampering, to human
error and to computer malfunctions -- and that they lack the most obvious
protection, a separate, paper receipt that a voter can confirm after voting
and that can be recounted if problems are suspected.

Officials who have worked with touch-screen systems say these concerns are
unfounded and, in certain cases, somewhat paranoid. 

David Dill, the Stanford University professor of computer science who
launched the petition drive, said, "What people have learned repeatedly,
the hard way, is that the prudent practice -- if you want to escape with
your data intact -- is what other people would perceive as paranoia."

Other computer scientists, including Rebecca Mercuri of Bryn Mawr College,
say that problems are so likely that they are virtually guaranteed to occur
-- and already have.

Lost and Found 

Mercuri, who has studied voting security for more than a decade, points to
a November 2000 election in South Brunswick, N.J., in which touch-screen
equipment manufactured by Sequoia Voting Systems was used. 

In a race in which voters could pick two candidates from a pair of
Republicans and a pair of Democrats, one machine recorded a vote pattern
that was out of sync with the pattern recorded elsewhere -- no votes
whatsoever for one Republican and one Democrat. Sequoia said at the time
that no votes were lost -- they were just never registered. Local officials
said it didn't matter whether the fault was the voters' or the machine's,
the expected votes were gone.

In October, election officials in Raleigh, N.C., discovered that early
voters had to try several times to record their votes on iVotronic touch
screens from Election Systems and Software. Told of the problems, officials
compared the number of voters to the number of votes counted and realized
that 294 votes had apparently been lost.

When Georgia debuted 22,000 Diebold touch screens last fall, some people
touched one candidate's name on the screen and saw another candidate's name
appear as their choice. Voters who were paying attention had a chance to
correct the error before finalizing their vote, but those who weren't did

Chris Rigall, spokesman for the secretary of state's office, said that the
machines were quickly replaced, but that there was no way of knowing how
many votes were incorrectly counted. 

In September in Florida, Miami-Dade and Broward counties had a different
kind of vote loss with ES&S touch-screen equipment: At the end of the day,
precincts that reported hundreds of voters also listed virtually no votes
counted. In that case, technicians were able to retrieve the votes from the

"If the only way you know that it's working incorrectly is when there's
four votes instead of 1,200 votes, then how do you know that if it's 1,100
votes instead of 1,200 votes? You'll never know," said Mercuri.

Because humans are imperfect and computers are complicated, said Ben
Bederson, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland,
mistakes will always be made. With no backup to test, the scientists say,
mistakes will go undetected.

"I'm not concerned about elections that are a mess," Dill said. "I'm
concerned about elections that appear to go smoothly, and no one knows that
it was all messed up inside the machine."

"We're not paranoid," said Mercuri. "They're avoiding computational
realities. That's the computer science part of it. We can't avoid it any
more than physical scientists can avoid gravity."

The Miami-Dade and Georgia terminals were reprogrammed right up until the
eve of the fall elections. The last-minute patches don't go through
sufficient review, Mercuri said, and any computer that can be reprogrammed
simply by inserting an update cartridge cannot be considered secure or

Dill said hackers constantly defeat sophisticated protections for
electronic transactions, bank records, credit reports and software.
"Someone sufficiently unscrupulous, with an investment of $50,000, could
put together a team of people who could very easily subvert all of the
security mechanisms that we've heard about on these [voting] machines," he

People who have sold or administered electronic voting systems, however,
say the scenarios of fraud or widespread, election-changing error were not
of the real world. 

'We'd Detect It' 

Howard Cramer, vice president for sales at Sequoia, one of the nation's
largest suppliers of electronic voting systems, noted that his company has
been supplying the systems for a decade and a half. "Our existing approach
is verifiably accurate, 100 percent," he said. "Some of the things they're
saying are flat-out wrong. Some are conceivable, but outside the likelihood
of possibility."

The designer of Georgia's security system, for example, said nobody could
insert a secret program to steal an election when the machines are created,
because no one even knows at that time who the candidates will be, and the
only people with access to the machines at the last minute are local

"They're talking about what they could do if they had access to the
[computer program] code, if we had no procedures in place and no physical
security in place," said Brit Williams, a computer scientist at Kennesaw
State University. "I'm not arguing with that. But they're not going to get
access to that code. Even if they did, we'd detect it."

He also said that Georgia's patch was checked before it was installed and
did not affect the tallying of votes. And no one, he said, could reprogram
Georgia's terminals by inserting a cartridge.

"On our machine, the port is in a locked compartment. The only person in
the precinct who has a key to that locked compartment is the precinct
manager. [Critics are] looking at it from a purely computer science point
of view, saying the system is vulnerable, and it would be vulnerable if we
let anyone walk up and stick a card into it, but that doesn't happen."

After Dill launched his campaign, officials in the Silicon Valley county of
Santa Clara delayed a purchase of 5,000 touch-screen voting machines.
Despite insisting that their systems are reliable and secure, the nation's
leading vendors all immediately agreed to provide paper receipts, and the
California secretary of state announced a task force to review the security
concerns. A month ago, Santa Clara went ahead with its $20 million
purchase, insisting that receipts be provided once the state approves the
new equipment.

Georgia and Maryland officials said that providing paper receipts may
create more problems than it solves -- that paper would have to be
transported and monitored with security, and printers could jam. Cramer of
Sequoia said paper is unnecessary, costly and may pose a problem for blind

But if customers want receipts, he said, his company will supply them. And
Williams said receipts may have a place in the system. "The advantage of a
hard piece of paper -- one that a voter would hold in his hand and say,
'That is who I voted for' -- that is psychological, and there certainly is
value to that. We need public confidence in our elections," he said.

Similarly, the official overseeing Maryland's program would accept paper if
it were available. 

"I've been doing voting systems for 15 years," Torre said. "I don't care if
they give voters a piece of paper or not. If they come out with a receipt,
that's fine. Maybe with the momentum out of California, we'll have receipts
before too long." 

 2003 The Washington Post Company

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo@bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime@bbs.thing.net