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California Connected

Voting machines and hailstorms

Saturday, June 10, 2006
By Thomas Kelly

Part of a special series on electronic voting and security threats.

It’s unlikely that every voter using an electronic voting device in 2006 will know for sure that his or her vote will be reflected in the actual totals. Six years after the 2000 electoral debacle, how can this be?
— Steven Levy, Newsweek, May 29, 2006


Nearly six years after the 2000 election, as mandated by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, the United States Election Assistance Commission will soon take on full oversight of the federal voting systems qualification process. This will mark the first time in the nation’s history that a federal commission will coordinate efforts to make all elections systems more secure and accurate.

But even with the extra federal support, many activists and experts say an election disaster looms on the horizon unless we better enforce existing guidelines and make smarter policy decisions.

This week, electronic voting experts were at Capitol Hill to present this case to the House Science Committee ...

Joseph Lorenzo Hall, a Ph.D. student working under the auspices of ACCURATE (A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable, and Transparent Elections), says the federal procedures now in place to test and certify voting equipment need major retooling.

It is troubling that a voting system containing a violation of the 2002 [Voting System Standards] survived the federal certification and testing process, Hall writes in a background report prepared for the committee. ...

At present, the National Association of State Election Directors continues to oversee the federal evaluation process. In an email response to allegations that the federal qualification program is under-funded and inadequate, Sandy Steinbach, chairperson for NASED’s Voting Systems Board, said her organization is addressing concerns about the Diebold machines.

I would not agree that the current qualification process is under-funded, she writes. It is un-funded. I also do not agree that it is broken on a federal level. The NASED program could be improved, but it is still functioning under less than ideal circumstances. Fortunately, the federal program will soon take over.

NASED, which has run the federal qualification process for several years, will hand over its duties to the Election Assistance Commission later this year. EAC Chairman Paul DeGregorio says his commission is already developing new strategies ...

We've seen more election reform during the past six years than we saw in the previous 200 to that, he says. ...

However, critics say it is an investment that some government officials are loathe to re-evaluate once voting systems turn out to have drawbacks.

Douglas Jones, computer science professor at the University of Iowa and a recognized expert on voting technologies, says there are three systemic reasons for this bias: the need to promote public confidence in elections, dependency on voting manufacturers' technical knowledge, and limited public funds.

If I have just spent several million dollars on new voting machines and they are shown to be technically less than excellent, then I can be faced with people charging that I've abused the public pocketbook, Jones says. Once you've spent thousands of dollars on a new car, you don't want to notice the fact that there's evidence it might have been in a hailstorm before it was sold to you and the dents weren't pulled out perfectly.

Lowell Finley, co-director of Voter Action, ... says the Help America Vote Act 0f 2002 has also been turned on its head.

Instead of forming the commission and developing standards and then distributing money to the states, it was all done in reverse, he says. The money was handed out, then a commission was formed quite late. And they didn't publish any standards until two weeks before the end of 2005 and two weeks before the deadline under the Help America Vote Act for states to purchase disability-accessible voting systems.

Critics says this led to a rush by counties to purchase touch-screen voting systems. In addition, they say counties that acquired touch-screen voting machines in the 26 states that now have voter verified paper audit laws, like California, lost millions of dollars as they were forced to upgrade or retrofit touch-screen machines with printers.

In March, Voter Action took the fight one step further and filed a lawsuit against the California Secretary of State and nearly 20 counties to prevent them from buying or using any touch-screen voting machines ...

The evidence is overwhelming that the touch-screens on the market don't satisfy those requirements, he says. ...

Voter Action has now sponsored similar litigation in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, New York and Pennsylvania. ...

California has the strictest state certification process for new voting technologies, according to Susan Lapsley, the California Assistant Secretary of State for Elections. She says technicians review code and conduct extensive performance tests. Most recently, her staff simultaneously tested 250 machines from Sequoia Voting Systems in a warehouse, 100 each of two touch-screen models and 50 of a new optical-scan model.


But despite California's extensive certification and monitoring process, Hall says there is an additional layer of confusion that undercuts some of these efforts: a lack of uniformity in voting standards across counties.

One of the problems with all of this is voting systems are really strange, he says. By the time you're out there trying to sell your system to an election official, you can't make changes without going through the federal and state process over again. And so you have to be able to answer any whim of any election official with your machine right then and there. What this results in is highly configurable machines where you can't possibly test the space of all the different configurations at once.

This is why Diebold has preserved backdoors to its systems, Hall says. ...

It's pretty clear that this wasn't what we've been harping on for the longest time, which are malfunctions and bugs, unexpected behavior, he says. This is an actual design feature. They designed the system such that it would be very easy to replace the software on all these systems very quickly by having a few of these memory cards and having a few people sticking them in, turning the machines on, letting them do their thing, and then turning them off after five minutes, taking the card and going from machine to machine.

Diebold spokesman Mark Radke does not dispute this theory. He says the TSx touch-screen system's internal port exists for this specific function.


Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, says this is a problem because existing administrative security measures are not always followed. The backdoors are thus a major security failing, she says, because any malicious insider who gains access to the machines could quickly exploit them.

In a lot of jurisdictions there are cases where voting machines are delivered to polling sites days before the election and left there for days afterwards or they go home with the poll-workers, she says. Those kinds of practices are going to have to end.

Even in less populated counties like Riverside, California, which uses touch-screen voting machines produced by Sequoia Voting Systems, the vectors of human interaction quickly multiplies.

Riverside County has 3,700 machines and had 587 polling places for the June 6 primary. If there were three points of human contact per machine — a handover to deliver the machines to the polling place, contact with workers and voters at the polling place, and return of the machines and memory cartridges to be tallied after the election — the total points of human contact would be 2,171,900. That's on one day in one county.

Despite ongoing concerns over backdoors and security vulnerabilities, two sides to the same theme emerge from this debate. One side is the idea that the best safeguard against election fraud is a vigilant public that is well-informed of how the election process works.

Jones, who says he is often accused of being a luddite, believes in the potential of voting technology as long as transparency measures are implemented and followed.

Aside from questions of economics and human factors, which is to say, 'How easy are they to use and how much do they cost?' Aside from those kinds of considerations, the voter verified paper ballot on a touch-screen machine and the optical-scan systems are both pretty solid technologies for voting, he says. Except we always have to worry about the quality of how we administer them.

DeGregorio falls slightly on the other side of the debate. This past year he visited several states on election days, observing poll-workers, talking to voters, and scrutinizing the performance of fancy voting systems.

What I witnessed firsthand is that the machines are just part of the equation, he says. Voting is a human exercise.

To read more from this series, go to Shortcircuits in our democracy? and Backdoors in Castle Diebold. For more background, go to our Ballot Boxes and Black Holes interactive story and resource links.