Secure e-voting? Not this year, experts say

Electronic voting errors are inevitable regardless of the technology, experts last week told a House panel that is grappling with election accuracy and security worries.

Government officials, computer scientists and technology vendors all agreed it’s too late for legislation or new technology in the 2004 presidential election.

Their testimony frustrated Rep. Adam Putnam, chairman of the Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census.

“My concern is that this election is going to be a fiasco,” the Florida Republican said. “Any state could have been Florida in 2000, and nobody has passed any legislation that will prevent another Florida in 2004.”

E-voting became increasingly controversial as several states invested in new computer voting machines. Although some states have used direct-recording electronic machines without problems, some computer security experts say they are not secure enough.

The hearing topic was “the science of electronic voting machine technology,” but witnesses pointed out that no such science exists.

“There are no adequate standards for voting machines, nor effective testing protocols,” said Michael I. Shamos, of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University.

“We are making it up as we go along,” said Jim Adler, founder of VoteHere Inc. of Bellevue, Wash., which developed voter verification software for e-voting machines. “The first thing we have to do is measure it,” before an acceptable margin of error can be set for elections.

State and local jurisdictions, not the federal government, conduct elections. There are no historic rules for the nuts and bolts of casting and counting votes. Those jobs are handled by 1.4 million poll workers in 193,000 precincts in 10,000 jurisdictions across the country.

The Help America Vote Act, passed in the wake of the disputed 2000 presidential election, is the federal government’s first foray into voting standards. But HAVA’s key requirements do not kick in until 2006, when voting systems used in federal elections must allow error correction by voters, manual audits, disabled accessibility, alternative languages and error-rate standards compliance.

Work on standards has barely begun. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is heading a committee that will produce voluntary e-voting software guidelines on behalf of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which HAVA established.

Acting NIST director Hratch Semerjian said the Technical Guidelines Development Committee first met July 9 and is not scheduled to produce guidelines for nine months, well after the November election. Those guidelines will be voluntary.

Machines decertified

In the meantime, HAVA has made $4 billion available to help states switch to new voting machines, and states have begun spending the money, sometimes with disappointing results.

California earlier this year decertified electronic voting machines expected to be used by nearly half of the state’s voters in November because of their lack of an audit trail. The Missouri secretary of state recently announced he would not certify e-voting machines that cannot produce a paper ballot.

In Ohio, 88 counties that had contracted to buy electronic machines from Diebold Election Systems Inc. of North Canton, Ohio, are scrambling to find money for alternatives now that the Diebold machines have been decertified there.

Proposed security solutions include printing paper ballots that can be voter-verified, or some other type of audit trail.

VoteHere is selling an encrypted vote verification system that produces a paper receipt with a unique ballot sequence number generated by a cryptographic engine. The list of encrypted numbers can be published online by election authorities, so voters can see that their ballots were counted, while the actual vote remains secret.

Advanced Voting Solutions Inc. of Frisco, Texas, has agreed to load the VoteHere product on machines for a pilot test in this fall’s election. Adler said the company is negotiating with jurisdictions where the machines could be tested.

The pilot would take place at polling places during the general election, but not on live voting machines. After casting their real votes, voters would have a chance to try out the new technology on separate machines.

It’s too late this year for the technology to be adopted in a live election, Adler said, “but that’s all right. Most of the procurement is going to happen in 2005 and 2006, so we want it evaluated now.”

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