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From the Minneapolis
Star Tribune

Minnesota to let computers count all votes in '06

August 22, 2006
By John Reinan

In the coming weeks, nearly 3 million Minnesotans will vote in primary and general elections. And for the first time, every one of their votes will be entrusted to a computer.

"Trust" is the operative word. Citizens always have had to trust that public officials will run honest elections, but now voters also have to put their faith in a handful of private companies that sell, program and test the electronic machines used to count our ballots.


About 80 percent of Minnesotans already have used optical scan voting machines, according to Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, whose office oversees elections. Experience has proved that they're accurate, she said.

But relying on computers creates a new problem, some say: making elections vulnerable to high-tech tampering. Nobody has discovered a U.S. election that was compromised by hackers. But critics of electronic voting have catalogued a long list of elections marred by faulty programming, mechanical failure or human error.

"Is it even possible to ensure the trustworthiness of the hardware and software in a voting system? My opinion is no," said David Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford ...


Reducing the risk of hacking

Election officials in Minnesota -- and elsewhere -- have no choice. After the Florida election debacle in 2000, which introduced America to hanging chads, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. The act required all states to switch to electronic voting machines, and it set aside more than $1 billion in federal money to pay for them, including about $31 million for Minnesota.

And if electronic voting is a must, Dill and other experts agree, then Minnesota's system is the best one available. With safeguards that include the retention of original paper ballots and a mandatory hand recount in random precincts, they say, the state has reduced the risk of computer hacking.

This fall, voters in 83 of Minnesota's 87 counties will use electronic machines made by Election Systems & Software of Omaha. Four counties -- Ramsey, Anoka, Dakota and Washington -- will use machines made by Ohio-based Diebold Inc.

In Minnesota counties that used electronic voting machines in 2004, the error rate in counting votes was nearly zero, Kiffmeyer said. In counties that counted ballots by hand, the error rate was about 1.5 percent.

County election officials say they're confident the machines will work as advertised.

"I don't foresee anything [bad] happening. But then, this is our first run with it," said Grant County Auditor Chad Van Santen, whose staff used to hand-count ballots from the county's 4,200 registered voters.

Critics of electronic voting contend that officials such as Van Santen don't really understand how the machines work and couldn't possibly catch a sophisticated attempt to hack the election results.

"Basically, all election officials say, 'We're as pure as the driven snow, and nobody has ever cheated,' " said John Washburn, a Milwaukee software analyst and contributor to www.blackboxvoting.org, ...

Testing 1 million lines of code

Most of Minnesota's smaller counties will rely on ES&S to program their machines for the election. Douglas Jones, an electronic-voting activist and associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa, questions the wisdom of turning over such a vital function of government to outsiders.

"Are we outsourcing democracy?" he said. "That adds a layer that wasn't there when we were talking about outsourcing maintenance of the rest stops along the highway."

The state also relies on an outside vendor to guarantee the accuracy of the software for the ES&S machines used in 83 counties. SysTest Labs of Denver is one of only two companies nationwide certified by the federal government to act as an independent testing authority for voting machine software.

No malice found

Brian Phillips, president of SysTest, said his company takes that responsibility seriously. SysTest analysts are reviewing more than 1.5 million lines of computer source code, Phillips said. Any errors are sent back to ES&S to be fixed, then tested again.

Phillips said his analysts often find mistakes or poorly written code, but they've never found an attempt to rig an election by hiding malicious commands in the software. Dishonest election officials pose a greater threat than hackers, he said.

Phillips had a blunt reply to critics of the independent testing process. "They're academics, not practitioners," Phillips said. "If they had come in, audited us, reviewed our processes and then made an educated statement, I would be concerned. I've offered ... [and] nobody has yet to come in."

Looking for a 'Trojan horse'

In Hennepin and Ramsey counties, which together account for about one-third of the state's voters, county staffers handle the programming themselves. ...

Each machine is tested three times before it's shipped to a polling place, said Joe Mansky, Ramsey County's election manager. When a machine is sent out, its memory card is secured with a numbered seal. On election day, judges confirm that the seal is unbroken.

The memory card for each voting machine is unique, so even if someone stole one, it wouldn't work in any other precinct, Mansky said.

Mansky said his staff is constantly testing for "Trojan horses," rogue commands hidden in the voting software.

"I have never found an election that has been hacked," Mansky said. "But it's a moving target. ..."

John Reinan - 612-673-7402 - jreinan@startribune.com

© 2006 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.