A growing number of school board races and bond issues are being decided by a new type of touch-screen voting technology now being used in several states across the nation. The state-of-the-art machines are intended to quell the fear of “hanging chads,” still resonating since the Florida presidential election debacle of 2000–but the devices so far have had problems of their own. Critics warn the machines could cast doubt on the outcomes of many elections and referenda in 2004.

Some experts argue the new machines are susceptible to hackers who could sabotage election results. Others say the technology is suspect because it does not provide voters with a verifiable, paper-based audit trail, like a receipt, confirming whether or not their vote has been cast and counted correctly. The machines’ supporters, on the other hand, say the devices are accurate, secure, and much easier to use.

The technology already is the source of debate in one recent school board election held Nov. 4 in Fairfax County, Va. The fuss began when county election officials reported at least nine of the 1,000 WINvote touch-screen polling devices it purchased from Texas-based Advanced Voting Systems (AVS) had to be removed from service on Election Day because of reported technical problems. Fairfax County, the state’s most populous county, originally invested more than $3 million in the machines, election officials said.

According to reports from the Associated Press (AP), at least one former school board member questioned the results after constituents complained they had trouble using the machines to cast votes in her favor. At-large school board member Rita S. Thompson–who received 77,796 votes, falling 1,662 short of reelection–said she heard reports throughout the day of the devices malfunctioning.

“It’s hard enough being a candidate; it’s not a good feeling when something else is messing with the process,” she told AP. “I do think it had an effect on the outcome.”

AVS officials said they doubt whether Thompson lost any votes as a result of the glitch. Company President and Chief Executive Officer Howard Van Pelt told reporters that officials removed one machine in question as soon as a complaint was lodged and that it only had 12 votes recorded on it.

During the day, the county removed at least eight other machines from their respective polling places for inspection, all of which they say were returned and counted toward the final vote. The decision angered Republican Party officials, who questioned whether it was a violation of election policy to remove the voting machines from a polling place and later return them for inclusion in the count.

Maggie Luca, secretary to the Fairfax County Electoral Board and General Register, said the decision was a judgment call on behalf of election officials. “There was never a vote lost. There was never a vote in question,” she said in an interview with eSchool News. “As often happens in these types of situations, things get totally blown out of proportion. The petitioning party thought it obviously meant votes were being changed. What they didn’t know is that it is impossible to do so.”

Still, the slightest hint of impropriety was enough for a Fairfax County judge to grant skeptical Republicans a court-ordered injunction into the use of the malfunctioning machines on Election Day. And while the probe itself did not produce evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of AVS service technicians or county election officials, the controversy has served to ignite concerns, as voters nationwide mull the switch from traditional ballots and old-fashioned lever machines to more advanced technology in the polling place.

Help America Vote Act

In Virginia, as in other states across the country, electronic voting machines were introduced this year to meet the demands of the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, which provides federal assistance to help states modernize voting equipment in preparation for the 2004 presidential primaries.

But, thus far, a number of voters’ rights groups and researchers alike have cautioned against the dangers of these latest touch-screen voting tools, complaining they lend themselves more easily to fraud and do not provide a paper trail to guarantee the vote.

For instance, in Maryland, where state officials recently approved $55.6 million for the purchase of the AccuVote Touch Screen Voting System from Ohio-based voting technology firm Diebold Inc., at least one watchdog agency has challenged officials to reverse their certification of the devices, claiming that the state “has ceded responsibility for counting and reporting election results to a private corporation.”

As part of a “citizen’s complaint” filed by the Campaign for Verifiable Voting in Maryland, Kevin Zeese Esq., co-director of the campaign, urged the Board of Elections not to rush into chaos. “Every report reviewing the Diebold … machines has found serious security flaws. And, because of the lack of a paper audit and recount trail, voters in Maryland will never know whether the security of the vote was violated and whether their vote was accurately counted.”

One such analysis from a group of computer science researchers at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore says the Diebold system potentially could be used to enable mischievous voters, with limited computer knowledge, to cast unlimited votes for a single candidate.

Yoshi Kohno, a Johns Hopkins researcher and co-author of “Analysis of an Electronic Voting System,” said he believes the technology in its current form is extremely vulnerable to fraud and tampering.

“Because these machines don’t produce a paper trail, there is no way to see if an election is valid or not,” he said. Kohno also said it would be possible for people to tamper with the system in such a way that would enable them to change the votes recorded on each machine at will. Kohno likened the method by which votes are stored on the devices to a file composed in Microsoft Word and said that with the right editor, even the most novice of hackers could open the database and manipulate voting records.

Supporters of the touch-screen movement say these criticisms so far are unsubstantiated. Most detractors, they say, are wholly unfamiliar with the controls and security measures already in place during important elections.

“Every time you come up with a new product, you hear the same exact stuff,” said Van Pelt of AVS, who added that if his 33 years in elections technology has taught him anything, it’s that the people leading the opposition are often the ones who are least familiar with the process. “These people have never run an election in their lives, now suddenly they’re experts. It makes no sense,” he said.

According to Van Pelt, the touch-screen devices his company uses are encrypted to prevent tampering. In Virginia, they also are being used as stand-alone units, which means they are not accessible to hackers through an outside network. Logic and accuracy tests also are performed on each and every machine before an election to make sure they are recording and counting votes correctly, he said. What’s more, policies are in place that allow officials from each political party to be present at the polling place to ensure the validity of the vote.

Where a paper trail is concerned, Van Pelt said that although AVS machines don’t print out a record for each individual voter, they are equipped with a printer that runs at the end of the voting day to show how many votes were cast on each machine. Also, after voters have filled out their electronic ballots, the machine brings them to a summary screen, which enables them to check each vote and make corrections where mistakes might have been made in the process.

Whether or not each voter receives a printed record of the ballot, he said, “we’re talking about technology that is a heck of a lot more secure than a traditional voting machine.” Plus, when it comes to counting the votes, the machines are almost always more accurate than a hand count, he said. Unlike people, he said, machines don’t get tired–and they don’t lose count.

Diebold spokesman David Bear echoed Van Pelt’s sentiments, saying that his company also has many of the same protections in place. “The questions that are being brought up about voting are not new,” he added. “In fact, they come up every time a new technology is introduced.”

To contain the anxiety, Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, a Republican, commissioned a third-party security analysis of the voting machines. Based on the report, conducted by Science Applications International Corp., an independent information technology firm specializing in security, the state plans to forge ahead with its rollout of the new equipment for the primary elections in March.

In other parts of the country, however, doubts continue to linger. California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley recently went against the recommendation of a task force he commissioned on the issue, saying he would require every touch-screen voting machine in the state to provide a voter-verified paper trail. Bear said Diebold would be willing to provide the printers at customers’ requests.

Controversy boils over

For Diebold, however, the pressure appears to be mounting. Recently the company found itself in the midst of a highly publicized legal skirmish when it sent out dozens of cease-and-desist letters to internet service providers, college students, and others after internal documents questioning the security of its voting technology turned up online.

In their complaint, Diebold attorneys said the published eMail messages were proprietary information and represented a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). But in an unusually bold, preemptive strike meant to squash the company’s gag order, attorneys for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a Washington, D.C.-based privacy rights group, took up the fight on behalf of two Swarthmore College students and a nonprofit internet service provider called the Online Policy Group–all the three of whom refused to remove the information from their web sites.

EFF shot back, claiming it was Diebold that had abused the law, using its cease-and-desist letters as a scare tactic to prevent debate over new voting practices in the upcoming elections. In response, Diebold told eSchool News Dec. 1 that it planned to retract its DMCA complaints and would not file suit against students or their internet providers in any case. “We just want to move forward,” said Diebold’s Bear, though he didn’t rule out the possibility of pursuing similar claims in the future.

That decision, which Diebold confirmed before a judge in U.S. District Court Dec. 2, came as a major victory for privacy experts and served to put electronic voting in the spotlight at a time when proponents of the technology are doing all they can to reduce public anxiety over the machines.

But it might be too late for that. Even Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat and 2004 presidential candidate, recently weighed in on the issue, providing links to the controversial Diebold documents from a new section on his House web site dedicated to informing the public of flaws linked to voting systems produced by Diebold.

The web site, which contains excerpts from Diebold’s employee manual, contends the company not only knew of significant failings with voting machines and ballot counting, but also specifically instructed employees to misrepresent such flaws when questioned.

“Diebold’s employee guidelines demonstrate why we need more transparency in the development and implementation of voting machines so that such failings are not tolerated,” stated Kucinich. “Unfortunately, instead of working to improve voting machine accuracy and security, this document shows that Diebold has attempted to cover up voting machine failings with secrecy and false statements.”

Back in Fairfax County, Va., election officials say that despite all the fuss that’s been made over the machines recently, they couldn’t be happier with the new technology.

“The response has been so overwhelmingly positive that it’s been very hard for me to adjust to all the negative talk,” county official Luca said. The machines, she said, were especially helpful for disabled voters, who now can cast their votes by voice and even enlarge the print on the screen so it’s easier to read. The machines also can be wheeled out to the curb to assist voters who have trouble making their way into the polling place.

The only real glitch, she said, occurred at the end of the day when polling officials overwhelmed the software that tabulates the results by trying to send too much information to the computer at once. But that’s a problem she expects will be eliminated before the 2004 primaries. “This has been a major learning curve for everybody involved,” she said. “Overall, it was a very positive switchover.”

Officials from the Virginia State Board of Elections said that while the decision about what type of voting technology to purchase is made at the county level, the state will continue to support the move to newer voting technologies.

Where school board races are concerned, the National School Boards Association said it has no opinion on the use of electronic voting machines in elections and that it would trust the decisions made by state and local governments in all cases.

Other states using electronic voting systems on a large scale this year include Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. Currently, Diebold says more than 22,000 of its touch-screen units are in use across the country, compared with 2,500 AVS machines.

Links:

Diebold Inc.
http://www.diebold.com

Advanced Voting Systems
http://www.advancedvoting.com

Electronic Frontier Foundation
http://www.eff.org

Rep. Dennis Kucinich’s web site
http://www.house.gov/kucinich/issues/voting.htm

Campaign For Verifiable Voting in Maryland
http://www.truevotemd.org

Fairfax County Electoral Board and General Register
http://www.co.fairfax.va.us/gov/eb/homepage.htm