A vote of no confidence

Optical-scan voting technology moves ahead of touch screens, but is it an improvement?

Electronic voting technology first became prominent — and controversial — after passage of the Help America Vote Act in 2002. Between that law’s enactment and the 2004 presidential election, when the machines were in widespread use nationwide, fears over their security and accuracy mounted.

Much has changed in the four years since that election. States such as Maryland, which had initially committed to using touch-screen machines statewide, decided to abandon them and switch to optical-scan equipment. In 2007, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen decertified several voting systems in her state and ordered a top-to-bottom review of eight systems. However, only three of the manufacturers cooperated.

Much of the early controversy centered on touch-screen systems, formally known as direct recording electronic (DRE) machines. Opponents said that because the systems did not generate a paper record, people could not verify their votes and officials could not conduct a manual recount if there was reason to believe the machines had not recorded the votes.

Other concerns included vote flipping, in which a voter touches the screen in the space indicated for the preferred candidate but the machine records the vote for a different candidate, usually one next to the one the voter selected. Advocates of the machines said voters pressing the wrong part of the screen or poll workers calibrating the screen improperly caused most of those anomalies.

Opponents were also concerned that it would be relatively easy for someone intent on rigging the election to change the recorded votes on the machines or program the machines to do it. Security concerns increased after computer scientists found weaknesses in the source code for some voting systems.

E-voting skeptics often view optical-scan machines more favorably because such systems read and count voter-marked paper ballots, which means they automatically create a paper record.

Some of the changes states have ordered won’t come into full bloom until 2010, but the seeds are planted, said Aviel Rubin, a computer science professor and technical director of the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

“Many, many states have passed paper requirements,” he said. “Many are in the form of paper trails rather than paper ballots. Paperless touch screens are going to be a lot less [common in 2008] — and even less in 2010. We went down the wrong path for a while. I think we’ve seen a correction.”

Rubin, author of the book “Brave New Ballot: The Battle to Safeguard Democracy in the Age of Electronic Voting,” was one of the first computer scientists to analyze the source code for e-voting machines and one of the most vocal early critics of the unquestioning manner in which many jurisdictions adopted the technology.

California’s review is one of several studies in recent years that have shown that the security problems related to e-voting — and DREs in particular — have not been resolved.

“The studies were pretty damning,” Rubin said. University researchers were able to plant viruses and found buffer overflow vulnerabilities, which can cause the system to crash and possibly lose recorded votes.

“The thing that’s very different is these were required by the [California] secretary of state, whereas we had just gotten our hands on the code,” he said. That suggests the level of awareness and skepticism is growing in official quarters and among the public, he added.

John Gideon, co-director and information manager at VotersUnite, credited grass-roots opposition with spurring states to change their approach.

“I think to a great extent it’s because the activists out there have raised a big enough stink and been loud enough about it that some of the state elected officials have started asking questions,” Ru bin said.

Voting system vendors agree that activists made a difference but don’t necessarily agree that it was a positive one.

“Through the pressure of various advocacy groups, they’re shaping the market demand,” said David Beirne, executive director of the Election Technology Council, a trade group for voting-system makers.

But, the advocacy groups’ influence can only go so far, he said. “You’re always going to have to have some kind of electronic component due to the accessibility requirements under federal law,” he said. “The days of marking a paper ballot with a pen are long gone.”

Every system — whether paper or electronic — has risks, Beirne added.

“There are benefits associated with electronic voting,” Beirne said. “It eliminates any question of voter intent. It eliminates paper ballots from manipulation by voters or anyone else.”

The local view
Maryland first contracted with Diebold Election Systems — now Premier Election Solutions — in 2002 to provide touch-screen machines statewide. In 2007, the state legislature passed a bill requiring the state to switch to optical-scan machines by 2010. Gov. Martin O’Malley signed it into law, and the Maryland State Board of Elections is working on implementing it.

The first statewide election that will require optical-scan machines will be the gubernatorial primary in September 2010, said Paul Aumayr, project manager for the state’s voting systems. His team plans to issue a request for proposals later this year.

Once the state selects a company and orders the machines, Aumayr’s work will begin in earnest.

“That means bringing the equipment in and bringing in software,” he said. “We’ll have training for pretty much everybody, starting with election officials, election judges, educating the public. There will be a lot of education.”

The state’s voting districts will do much of the work with their employees, he added.

Although 19 of Maryland’s 24 voting districts have used optical-scan machines in the past, they don’t include the state’s largest districts, he said. Less than half of the state’s voters live in districts that have used the technology.

However, not all observers approve of Maryland’s change or similar actions taking place in other states.

Paul Herrnson, a professor of government and politics and director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, said he believes touch-screen machines are as secure and accurate as any other system and have some advantages that alternative technologies lack.

“There are two kinds of risks associated with electronic voting,” he said. “The first kind is the risk of inaccuracy, which is basically voters having difficulty casting their ballots as intended. They may forget to vote for someone. They may vote for the wrong candidate. They may vote for two people and void their ballot.”

Touch-screen machines offer the best safeguard against such errors, said Herrnson, who was the principal investigator on a five-year study of voting technology and ballot design released earlier this year. The machines can prevent someone from accidentally voting for two candidates for one office and can alert voters who have voted for no one in a given race to verify their intention, he said.

“The next risk is the security risk,” he said. “That whole debate has been taken over by computer scientists, which is unfortunate because they know a lot about computers but very little about administering elections.”

Optical-scan systems use computers, too, he added, and they are just as vulnerable to malicious manipulation as touch-screen systems &md sh; an just as easy to protect by implementing good security measures.

In addition, he said, “paper records are easily stolen, easily corrupted, and it’s been done throughout American history in a wholesale way.”

In New York, state election officials are fighting another kind of battle. They are testing two e-voting systems — from Sequoia Voting Systems and Election Systems and Software — but neither is performing well.

“Each of these machines has shown that the vendors have problems providing all the required documentation,” said Doug Kellner, a commissioner on the state’s Board of Elections. “There have been issues raised with the source code. It does not conform to the 2005 voluntary guidelines. And we haven’t even started the serious hardware testing. We’re looking to get these in place by 2009, and we’re starting to be concerned.”

Kellner, a member of the board since 1992, said he has long warned that no vendor can provide a system that meets all the federal standards.

New York, which is testing only optical-scan systems, has about 50 DRE machines out of more than 16,000 e-voting machines in use statewide, Keller said.

The manufacturers have responded to the state’s concerns, Kellner said. “We’re in the driver’s seat, so they do tell us that they’re doing all they can. My biggest problem is they don’t have a product that’s been adequately quality control tested in-house. They use the certification test as part of their quality control.”

Michelle Shafer, Sequoia’s vice president of communications, said the com-pany is working closely with the state board and various county boards to get the needed machines in place. “As everyone knows, New York’s road to a new voting system has been a complex one with any number of bumps in it,” she said.

“We haven’t missed that 2009 deadline yet,” Kellner said. Success is “still very possible. I’m only raising concerns that it’s not a slam-dunk sure thing. If they’re not ready, we will continue using the lever machines.”

Law helps vendors
Most observers agree that the Help America Vote Act was the prime impetus behind the adoption of e-voting systems. The law doesn’t specifically require the technology, but it does say that any electronic systems must meet accessibility standards for voters with disabilities. And touch-screen machines are among the easiest technologies to make compliant.  

Now, however, election officials are finding ways to bring other systems into compliance.

“People are starting to realize that there isn’t a choice that has to be made between security and accessibility,” Rubin said. “You can put an audio module [to aid the visually impaired] on other kinds of voting technologies.”

The Federal Election Assistance Commission, which was established under the Help America Vote Act to oversee the country’s voting processes, avoids advocating any specific technology, said Rosemary Rodriguez, the commission’s chairwoman. However, she said, the tide of opinion has turned against paperless systems in the past few years, she said.

Touch-screen machines have advantages beyond accessibility, she added. For example, it’s easy to program them to provide ballots in multiple languages and allow voters to switch to the one they need. And some jurisdictions are connecting printers to touch-screen machines to generate auditable records.

The commission is working on the next version of its Voluntary Voting System Guidelines, which were published in 2002 and updated in 2005.

“The other thing we’ll do, because we heard a lot in the public dialogue about the next iteration, is try to assess what the risk is n inc uding a paper trail,” she said. “We heard from a lot of election officials saying that could be another potential point of failure.”

The commission encourages transparency in elections, even though many officials consider some of the steps involved to be a nuisance, she said. The next iteration of the guidelines will likely emphasize ballot design and post-election auditing. The latter step, although it entails more work for officials after the election is over, demonstrates to the public that the voting systems accurately reflect the will of the people, she said.

“There’s some resistance to the post-election audit, but our guidance is that it’s a great way to tell your story, especially in elections where there have been questions,” she said. “It is our deepest hope that in 2008, all this guidance we’ve been issuing changes that environment.”  

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