Vote for change

E-voting vendors look to 2006

Following the noisy debates over voting technology during the 2004 election, companies that make electronic voting machines are trying to plan a strategy for the future.

New federal rules will take effect before the 2006 mid-term elections. But an uncertain regulatory structure and an array of standards that differ from state to state are complicating companies' efforts.

Federal legislation that would require voting machines to generate a paper record, which never made it past a House committee last year, is again on the table, as are several other bills. Some states require the paper trail, but many do not.

The commission established by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 plans to issue voluntary technical standards later this year for state officials to use. And companies are developing products that will be certified under 2002 federal standards, the first new ones since 1990.

For all that effort, however, it remains unclear whether much will change before the next round of elections.

"It's the systemic problems that are going to be really difficult to remedy in a two-year period," said Herbert Thompson, director of security technology and research at Security Innovation, a consulting firm. "I know that we can make incremental improvements in that period."

Companies can develop products from guesses about what regulations will require after 2006, he said. "We still don't have a consensus on what we would like things to look like in 2008. It's hard to hit a target four years from now when we don't have a clear idea of what the target looks like," he said.

The Election Assistance Commission, a congressionally appointed panel, will have a set of voluntary voting system standards to consider in April, delivered by its Technical Guidelines Development Committee. However, the standards will not be final, and development will continue.

When asked at a hearing of the House Administration Committee last month whether election boards would be able to act on the EAC's recommendations in time to have an effect on the next round of elections, Commissioner Paul DeGregorio said, "I know [vendors would] like to have more time than that."

And some election officials may believe nothing needs changing, said David Dill, a computer science professor at Stanford University and founder of the Verified Voting Foundation.

"A lot of these people seem to be rather clueless that there's even a debate going on about electronic voting," he said. "We hear the same things in certain counties that we would have heard two years ago where they just uncritically accept the word of vendors."

Poll books and paper trails

Meanwhile, familiar companies are introducing new models of their voting machines, and they are also branching into related technologies with products such as electronic poll books and voter registration systems.

Electronic poll books allow poll workers to look up information about voters who have appeared at the wrong polling location, and send them to the right location rather than having to issue a provisional ballot.

Companies are also adding the capability for their machines to generate paper records of votes, which are mandated by some states. Even without a federal law requiring paper records, vendor officials said they must be able to provide them in locations where they are required.

"What happened [just before Election Day 2004] was that everybody had dug in and entrenched their position," said Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University and an advocate of paper trails. "Now we have a chance to take a step back and re-evaluate whatever technology we're going to use. I believe we need an auditable paper trail, and now we have time to design it right."

Vendors, he added, "see the momentum is moving toward that. It's just the kind of thing that's a no-brainer."

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) has introduced a revised version of legislation that failed last year. It would require voting machines to generate paper records and includes other measures to increase voting security and accuracy. Some other bills have similar aims.

Although the 2004 version of his bill died in committee, Holt said he has higher hopes this year. He insists that election accuracy should be a nonpartisan matter; however, he got only a handful of Republicans to support the legislation last year.

"I think both Republicans and Democrats have had quite a bit of exposure to this back in their town meetings and interactions with their constituents. This is a subject that people all over the country are talking about," he said.

The November 2004 election provided experience that Holt said should add weight to his bill.

"All of Nevada used election machines with a voter-verified paper audit trail, and it worked well," he added.

"Computer scientists and experts warned that a voter-verified paper trail was necessary," said Sanford Morganstein, president and founder of Populex, a vote machine developer. "In some jurisdictions, people responsible for counting votes and running elections said, 'Maybe that's not necessary.' "

Morganstein, whose company has introduced a machine certified to the 2002 standards, said that objections some companies raised to adding the paper trails, such as the possibility of printers jamming or adding several hundred dollars to the cost of each machine, have proven to be unfounded. Unlike most electronic voting systems, the Populex machine does not store votes; instead, it prints out a bar coded paper ballot that tabulation software counts and that serves as a paper record.

Little change by 2006 elections?

Companies are busy assessing the likely state of the market in the near future and tailoring their technologies to fit. Election Systems & Software and Diebold Election Systems are among the companies with new products. Both have introduced electronic poll books and are refining their touch-screen voting machines to make them more secure.

The Election Assistance Commission will drive some of the changes that vendors must make when the panel issues its new guidelines, said John Groh, senior vice president of marketing at ES&S. However, vendors won't have access to a final version of the guidelines until summer, he said.

"That dictates that probably there will be little change by the November 2006 elections because there just won't be time," he said. "We will do and provide whatever the marketplace finally settles in on."

Diebold came under the fiercest criticism last year from electronic voting opponents, partly because it was an old version of the company's code that computer scientists analyzed and found to be vulnerable.

Now Diebold has dynamic passwords for election administrators and dynamic encryption keys, said Mark Radtke, the company's director of marketing. The machines now use Secure Sockets Layer technology to transmit encrypted unofficial election results, among other improvements.

The spotlight is shining on all the players now, he said. "If you look at the attention that election security receives today compared to before the [2004] election, it's like night and day," he said.

Products to help e-voting

Recent products that e-voting technology vendors have developed include:

* AccuView Printer (Diebold Election Systems). A module for Diebold touch-screen machines that generates a voter-verifiable paper trail. Submitted in January for federal approval.

* Digital Paper Ballot (Populex). A touch-screen voting machine that does not store votes in memory. Instead, it prints a coded paper ballot that is counted by a separate system. The touch screen also requires voters to use a special stylus, which helps eliminate errors caused when voters touch the screen accidentally.

* iPowerProfile (Election Systems & Software). An electronic poll book that allows poll workers to verify voter information at the polling location and provide a correct ballot.

— Michael Hardy

Commission promises tech standards

The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) is developing technical standards for voting machines that Gracia Hillman, commission chairwoman, promises will be thorough.

The draft guidelines are expected in April, she said. A committee is developing them in cooperation with the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

"What the commission acknowledges is that this first set of standards cannot possibly address everything," Hillman said. "This is a huge task."

Congress did not appoint the commission members as quickly as the Help America Vote Act had called for and then gave the commission scant funding in 2004, she added. Those factors have slowed the development of guidelines.

"We've asked the committee and NIST to put a big emphasis on security," Hillman said.

The commission won't mandate that voting machines generate a paper record, but it will set standards available to those states that do require the measure, she said. State officials will be able to use the guidelines to manage the use of paper trails.

July will be the earliest that the commission can adopt final standards, Hillman said. In some cases, state officials are delaying equipment purchases until they see what the commission will produce.

"Some states believe that they can do a lot of preliminary work but not pick the equipment they're going to buy until we come out with standards," she said. "The vendors are watching this very closely."

Crucial dates for e-voting machines are coming in 2006. Under the Help America Vote Act, every polling place in the country must have at least one machine accessible to people with disabilities by Jan. 6, 2006. Advocates of touch-screen machines cite the ability of those machines to display text in large type or high contrast, or convert text to speech, as aids for people with visual impairments.

States are also required to eliminate punch card and lever machines by the first federal election of 2006. E-voting vendors see that as a significant market opening, said Mark Radtke, director of marketing at Diebold Election Systems.

— Michael Hardy

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