Internet voting gains new appeal

The paper ballot bedlam afflicting Florida is prompting election and elected

officials from Connecticut to California to look anew at electronic voting.

In Florida, state and local officials predict the days of the notorious

punch card are over. But they wonder where the 25 counties that still use

punch card voting will get "tens of millions of dollars" needed to buy electronic

replacements. State Rep. Bill Andrews, a Delray Beach Republican, suggested

that Congress put up the cash — and federal lawmakers seem eager to help.

During the first week of December, U.S. House and Senate members offered

at least three plans for studying new voting technology, developing new

voting machine standards and making grants to states and localities to buy

new voting systems.

"The first election of the 21st century unfortunately has demonstrated

that many of our nation's voting systems are stuck somewhere in the mid-1900s,"

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Dec. 5.

Four weeks after the Nov. 7 presidential election, with results still

unsettled because of contested Florida ballots, McConnell and Sen. Robert

Torricelli (D-N.J.) proposed creating a permanent Election Administration

Commission to set election standards that include voting machine technology.

The commission would provide up to $100 million a year to states and localities

to improve voting systems.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for vendors" of election equipment,

said Deborah Phillips, director of the Virginia-based Voting Integrity

Project. Since the presidential election dispute erupted, companies have

been aggressively marketing hack-proof Internet voting systems, foolproof

touch-screen voting machines and various electronic security systems for

voting. But "there's no such thing as perfect voting technology," Phillips

said. "There is going to be tremendous attractiveness to try to find a one-size-fits-all

solution to the problems we have been witnessing. It doesn't exist."

Two voting systems are the center of attention: Internet systems and

direct recording electronic (DRE) machines.

The appeal of Internet voting is that it ultimately may let voters cast

ballots from their home or work computers. But there are major technical

problems to overcome to get there, said Lorrie Cranor, a voting technology

expert at AT&T Labs' Secure Systems Research department.

Problems include

verifying voter identification, defeating denial-of-service attacks, guaranteeing

voter privacy and finding ways to prevent "Trojan horse" virus attacks that

could change election results without being detected, she said.

A San Rafael, Calif., company, Safevote Inc., said it has solved most

of those problems. In a mock election held Oct. 30 to Nov. 3 in Contra Costa

County, near San Francisco, Safevote invited hackers to break into its system

and reported that the attacks failed. The company used "digital vote certificates"

to positively identify voters, but did not link names to ballots, preserving

anonymity.

Voted ballots were encrypted for privacy, and the system can be set

to record votes on CD-ROM, microfilm or even on paper to create a vote audit

trail, said Eva Waskell, Safevote communications director.

Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy in

Maryland, remains skeptical. "Internet voting [will] be there eventually,"

he said. "But the practical reality is that there are still a lot of issues

to be worked out."

Hugh Denton, a Contra Costa County election official, said the county was

pleased with Safevote's Internet voting experiment. However, "we're not

anxious to make a quick jump" to new technology, he said. His county is

satisfied with the current system — paper ballots that are marked by special

pens and read by optical scanners, he said.

The second technology under scrutiny, DRE voting machines, includes

touch-screen machines that enable voters to cast ballots by pressing the

names of the candidates they prefer. Some DRE machines use keys and are

similar to automated teller machines.

DRE machines tend to be expensive — around $15,000 each — but eSlate

3000, a new version developed by Hart InterCivic, has a base price of about

$2,500 per machine.

The machines allow voters to vote out of their precinct. In Texas, for example,

voters can cast ballots in supermarkets, said Bill Stotesbery, the company's

vice president of marketing.

DRE machines often are criticized for lacking paper ballots that can

be reviewed in case of a dispute, but the Hart InterCivic system can create

electronic images of each ballot to serve as an audit trail, Stotesbery

said.

"With electronic systems, you have less opportunity for ballot tampering,"

he said. "The vote goes directly from voter's hand to tabulation point.

There is no paper to be lost."

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