In a Florida county notorious for its vote-counting fiasco during last year’s presidential election, an offhand remark about student hackers set off a brisk flap in mid-August. A Broward County, Fla., commissioner suggested the county should invite area students to test the security of a computerized voting machine by trying to hack into the system during a mock election.

Broward County school officials spiked the idea right away, saying it would send students the wrong message about computer ethics. But when word of the idea leaked out to the public, the elections supervisor’s office reportedly was besieged with inquiries from students ready to volunteer.

In the wake of the botched presidential election last fall, voting officials in Broward County are considering the $20 million purchase of a touch-screen voting system.

“One of the biggest concerns raised is whether there is the potential for computer abuse, and we really need to see how foolproof or tamperproof this equipment is,” said county commission Chairman John Rodstrom. “If there is a problem, it will happen now or later. And some of these kids are pretty smart.”

Broward Supervisor of Elections Miriam Oliphant is pushing for the touch-screen system, which records votes on computer discs after voters use a video monitor to choose candidates.

Broward is forced to get rid of the punch-card ballots used in the last election. State lawmakers outlawed punch cards as part of an election-reform package quickly pulled together after the embarrassing presidential election.

Florida was the butt of jokes around the world as the country waited for a resolution while election workers squinted at ballots looking for dimples, pinpricks, or hanging chads.

Broward County commissioners have two concerns about touch-screen voting: cost and security. They want to hold mock elections at high schools and senior citizen centers to test the computerized system.

But school board members say they don’t want to send the wrong message to students by asking them to try breaking into the computers.

“Hackers in training? I don’t think so,” said Broward County school board Chairman Paul Eichner. “It’s not the image I want for the Broward County School District.”

When contacted by eSchool News, Eichner said, “We want to teach our kids character education: honesty, integrity, and the like. Suggesting that our students hack voting machines is clearly counterproductive.”

The commissioners received so many complaints about the idea that they now say students will not be asked to hack into any voting machines.

“It was just an idea that generated a lot of bad publicity, and we’re not going to do it,” said Bob Cantrell, director of government and public affairs for Oliphant’s office. “Although, after [the story broke], there was a tremendous number of kids who called us with an interest in taking on the project.”

The issue has generated some lively debate among school leaders outside of Broward County.

Rick Bauer, chief information officer at the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., agrees that encouraging students to hack may not be the best idea.

“It sets the students up to try their hand at other systems, and it puts the school system in the awkward and legally murky areas of … inviting students to defeat systems, which is probably not part of a healthy acceptable-use policy,” he said.

But others say the idea is not without precedent in the corporate world, where many businesses enlist the aid of tech-savvy youth to test their security systems.

According to Chris Mahoney, director of technology for Arkansas’ Lake Hamilton School District, it is absolutely a good idea for kids to try hacking into the system “in a controlled environment.”

“My students help our district know what is secure and what is not by helping us test certain software,” he said. “Students are the best resource for finding holes or glitches in the software.

“I prefer to have the so-called ‘hackers’ on my side in our district,” he added. “They are a very valuable asset for us.”

While Broward County students won’t be asked to hack into the system, Cantrell said students still may be used to test the system.

“The mock elections are a definite possibility,” he said. “First, the commission has to choose what machine they will be using, and then we’ll talk about using high-school students. That is certainly one thing we are considering.”

County officials hope that having students test the voting machines will increase voter participation among young adults.

“We want to get students involved in the democratic process,” said Cantrell. “There is a great need there, since there were eight million young people ages 18 to 22 who did not vote in the last election.”

County commissioners are also considering a far less expensive optical scan voting system, which Oliphant has said would cost the county $7 million. But Oliphant has said optical scan ballots—on which voters fill in a bubble or connect the ends of an arrow—can lead to missed votes and mistakes.

The touch-screen test would help voting officials demonstrate whether computers are as easy to use and mistake-free as touted, and whether it is easy to create a paper record of the vote from the computer records.

Links:

Broward County School District
http://www.browardschools.com

Broward County Supervisor of Elections
http://www.browardsoe.org

Board of County Commissioners
http://www.broward.org/pii01000.htm