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The Manila Times

High-tech voting vulnerable to old tricks

Sunday, December 21, 2003
By Katherine Stapp
Inter Press Service

NEW YORK --"Democracy," the rapier-tongued writer H.L. Mencken once observed, "is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard."

As the United States lurches into another election cycle, officials around the country are rushing to avert a replay of the debacle of 2000, ...


Having received $3.9 billion in federal aid to prevent such a spectacle from ever recurring, dozens of states are abandoning traditional paper ballots in favor of electronic systems that allow people to vote by touching a screen or flipping a switch.

In theory, computerized voting eliminates human error from the tabulation process, ... But many security gurus worry that the electronic systems are vulnerable to hacking, fraud and voter confusion.

And because the software code they use is considered "proprietary," outside programmers have been largely barred from performing independent evaluations.

"With classical election technology -- hand-counted paper ballots -- you can always redo any part of the count if there is any question about the totals," said Douglas Jones, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa and a member of the Iowa Board of Examiners for Voting Machines and Electronic Voting Systems.

"With many computerized systems, there is no recourse," he added in an interview. "We know that technicians at the county level have been known to rig mechanical lever voting machines."

"Why should we believe that technicians or programmers will not attempt similar fixes with direct recording electronic voting systems?"

A recent study one touch-screen system used in 37 states last year, sold by an Ohio-based company called Diebold, found problems with the vote-tallying software and a host of other loopholes.

"I've been teaching computer security for years, and my students would never design something like this," said Aviel Rubin, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who led the study. "You're looking at Swiss cheese. There's not much you can do to fix the system."


Diebold insists that the Johns Hopkins study was flawed and stands by its product, although a recent audit of the company's voting machines in California found that it had installed uncertified software in all 17 counties that use its equipment.

With cries of foul play multiplying, the consensus among many elections officials and security experts is that voting machines should also print out a paper receipt, something California has promised to introduce by 2006.

Other states are following suit, and the issue has been taken up by the new federal Election Assistance Commission and the National Institute of Science and Technology, although it is unlikely printers will be in place in time for the November 2004 elections.

"Current touch-screen systems record votes in electronic memory," said David Dill, a computer science professor at Stanford University. "The recording process and the resulting records can't be observed by anyone. ... "

"Each voter needs to be able to inspect the record that is made of his or her vote," Dill said. ...

But others are not so sure that creating a paper trail is the solution.

"Trying to retrofit an electronic voting machine with a paper roll and printer will undoubtedly result in printer jams ..." Denise Lamb, director of elections in the state of New Mexico, told IPS.

"[Another] problem is that paper ballot systems are not accessible to the visually impaired or alternate language speakers," she said. ...

Felicia Davis, coordinator of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation’s Election Protection Program in Georgia, expressed concerns that voters could end up staying home because they lacked confidence in the new system.


In the end, experts say, no system is foolproof -- but measures can and should be taken to minimize the chance of mistakes or deliberate vote theft.