Vote machine makers form council

Six companies that make electronic voting machines have formed the Election Technology Council, a team effort intended to address growing concerns about the security of the machines.

The group formed under the umbrella of the Information Technology Association of America. Founding members include Diebold Corp.'s Diebold Election Systems, Advanced Voting Solutions Inc., Election Systems and Software Inc., Hart InterCivic, Sequoia Voting Systems and Unilect Corp. David Hart, chairman of Hart InterCivic, will chair the council.

"We believe that American voters most have high confidence in the voting process," said Tracey Graham, president and chief executive officer of Sequoia.

The ETC will work on three main initiatives, she said, including:

* Creating a code of ethics for the industry.

* Working on recommendations for standards and certification.

* A review of security best practices.

Local election districts for the past several years have been discarding mechanical voting technologies, such as punch cards and lever systems, in favor of electronic systems. The federal Help America Vote Act, passed after the 2000 election drama caused by Florida's disputed vote count, is providing funding and incentive for election districts to make the switch. But several analyses this year have shown that touch-screen voting machines may be vulnerable to tampering by unscrupulous company employees, poll workers or hackers.

While the makers of the voting machines insist that they have safeguards in place to prevent such fraud, they also acknowledge that many voters are concerned. Earlier this year, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) introduced legislation that would require touch-screen machines to print a record of votes that voters could examine, and would be kept at the polling place and used if a recount is needed.

The electronic machines offer some advantages over older methods, said William Welsh, a former chairman and director of Election Systems & Software Inc. They can provide protection against voter error, he said. For example, if a voter selected two candidates for president using a punch card, election officials would have to throw the vote out. But an electronic machine could prevent the voter from making the error, called an overvote in the election industry.

"We can surely do better than a system that asks voters to take a stick and punch a hole in a piece of paper," he said.

Voting machine company officials also said that the voter-verified paper record would not solve security issues. The machines already include measures to ensure votes are recorded accurately, said Howard Van Pelt, president and CEO of Advanced Voting Solutions. His company's machines record each vote in three separate places, two permanently mounted in the machine and one removable. The machines check those three storage locations frequently to ensure the content in each is identical.

However, computer scientists have warned against trusting the machines too far, and public concern is growing. The industry will be responsive to concerns, said Harris Miller, ITAA president.

"The customer is always right," he said. "If the state and local election officials want paper ballots, the industry will provide those."

The public reaction is disappointing to the industry, Hart said. He rejected the notion that the machines are not safe.

"We believe that's not the case," he said. "We believe that's not even remotely the case."

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