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The Berkshire Eagle

Still a few bugs in the election system

Berkshire Eagle

After the Florida election debacle, Americans, with their usual faith in technology, wanted to believe that if the whole system could be computerized, all problems could be solved. Not so, say researchers from the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. They found that the software that runs the most popular touch-screen voting machine, the Diebold Election Systems AccuVote-TS, is riddled with flaws that could allow voters to cast as many votes as they pleased and let poll workers alter ballots without being detected. The machines apparently can also be hacked -- accessed and manipulated -- from a remote computer. More than 30,000 Diebold voting machines are in use in 37 states.

The company had kept the software's source code secret, saying that to reveal it might compromise security. The Johns Hopkins researchers downloaded their copy from an unsecured company Web site. Within half an hour, according to a Wired Magazine interview, they found the system password embedded in the source code, an elementary mistake that could be exploited by a novice programmer. A company spokesman said that many of the problems identified in the report had already been corrected, but University of Iowa professor Douglas W. Jones told The New York Times he was shocked to see it cited flaws he had pointed out five years ago.

Computer scientists have been saying for years that electronic voting machines are vulnerable to fraud and that a backup system is necessary to verify ballots in case a recount is necessary. But election officials nationwide have rushed to embrace the new technology as a panacea, a view encouraged by manufacturers; Diebold has projected sales of $1.5 billion to $2 billion in U.S. markets, according to its Web site. The Virginia Board of Elections rejected the Johns Hopkins report and authorized the use of the controversial machines in November's election, going so far as to assert that the report's authors owed Diebold "a public apology." In contrast, Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin has rejected calls for the touch-screen voting machine and Boston instead went for an optical scan machine that reads paper ballots.