E-voting security under fire in San Diego lawsuit

Machine practices, ballot reliability in doubt

A lawsuit has grown out of alleged breaches in security procedures around electronic voting machines in San Diego County after a hotly contested congressional election, throwing a spotlight on the reliability of the machines themselves.

The suit, filed on Monday, requests that a special election on June 6 to fill the 50th Congressional District seat be invalidated. It also seeks a complete hand recount of the paper ballots, said Paul Lehto, an Everett, Wash.-based attorney handling the case. The suit was filed in Superior Court in San Diego and names Mikel Haas, county registrar of voters, and Brian Bilbray, the winner of the seat, as defendants.

San Diego voters used AccuVote optical-scan and TSx touch-screen systems from Diebold Election Systems.

Whatever the specific merits of the suit, it could heighten some citizens' concerns about e-voting technology if critics' claims of the inherent security deficiencies get debated in court during the run-up to the fall elections.

One of the main points raised by the suit is the so-called sleepover policy, under which Haas directed that all the machines be released to poll worker supervisors before the election. These sleepovers lasted from three days to more than a week.

"During these sleepovers, the voting machines were unsecured, subject to access by innumerable neighbors, strangers and family members, and stored without records or proof of actual chain of custody, eliminating the ability of any person to detect whether or not fraud or improper access to the voting machines occurred," according to the lawsuit.

"The sleepover issue is fairly egregious," said Lehto. Tampering with one card in one device conceivably could change race results.

The suit also alleges that keys for touch-screen voting machines were released to poll workers -- which is a violation of state and federal law. In addition, the suit cites a recent report that alleges testers discovered a "heretofore unknown switch" in the circuitry of the Diebold TS touch-screen system, the predecessor to the TSx. This allows the machine to boot from an external source, which would circumvent the software and safeguards inside completely.

The suit accuses Haas of suppressing or not collecting relevant materials, such as audit logs and electronic programs and ballots, for potential review after the election.

Haas declined to comment in detail about the suit, citing pending litigation, but he did defend the sleepover practice as being something commonly done in California and other states.

"Supervising poll workers take all supplies home following a training class so they are prepared. They are directed to keep it [the machine] secure wherever they are responsible for it," he said.

A spokesman for Bilbray (R-Calif.) said, "Nothing has been brought to our attention that the election wasn't conducted with the utmost integrity."

Ion Sancho, head of elections for Leon County, Fla., and an outspoken critic of e-voting, acknowledged that the sleepover policy is commonplace, even in his jurisdiction. Nevertheless, he said that the voting machine vendors had yet to come up with proper guidance to address any potential vulnerabilities. Elections officials really don't know how safe it is to allow the machines to be taken home, he said.

"All it takes is a Phillips-head screwdriver to reprogram a voting machine," said Sancho.

A Diebold spokesman said that the alleged TS security flaw requires unfettered access to the machines, the complicity of elections officials and extraordinary technical expertise to succeed. Such tampering would also cause the Diebold machine to fail, he said.

This lawsuit is an example of what could happen in upcoming contests, said Brad Friedman, who covers e-voting issues in his blog. "Is this the sort of thing we want to see happen in 435 House races, 33 Senate races and 20-something gubernatorial races around the country on Nov. 7 this year?" said Friedman.

Lehto said this is a top-priority civil case that will probably go to trial within 30 to 45 days.

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