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Concerns About Fraud Potential Continue to Plague Users of Electronic Voting Machines

Report says flaws must be fixed for upcoming votes

By Marc L. Songini
July 3, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Electronic voting machines will be vulnerable to fraud this election season unless countermeasures are taken, according to a report issued last week by the New York University School of Law.

E-voting devices, such as touch-screen or optical scan systems, are becoming more prevalent nationwide, and most of them are vulnerable to external attack, according to the report compiled by the school's Brennan Center for Justice.

The report was prepared over an 18-month period by computer scientists and voting machine experts working on a task force set up by the Brennan Center to examine voting system security.

Larry Norden, chairman of the task force and an attorney at the Brennan Center, said that over the past several years, half of all manual voting systems in the U.S. have been replaced with electronic devices. Elections officials cite the need to meet the requirements of various federal laws and the need for improved accuracy in installing the systems. However, Norden said, "we've not necessarily adapted our [security] procedures to that new technology."

The report cites some 120 potential threats to e-voting systems and notes that most states have no system in place to detect malicious software attacks.

Ion Sancho, elections supervisor for Leon County, Fla., and a critic of e-voting system security, said the report confirms his worst fears about electronic voting.

On the other hand, Michael Shamos, a professor who specializes in e-voting issues at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, questioned the report's conclusions.

"The fundamental premise of the Brennan report and many activists is that it's easy to rig a machine to throw an election," said Shamos. "It isn't.

"You have to install Trojan horse software that not only swaps votes but does so in a way that won't immediately be obvious from the demographics of the precinct and evades all tests to detect it before and after the election," he said. "No one knows how to do that."

Omaha-based voting device maker Election Systems & Software Inc. last week said it is reviewing the report and couldn't address its specific conclusions.

The report did not go unnoticed in Washington. "This nonpartisan report ... confirms what many of us have believed for years: Electronic machines are all vulnerable to error or manipulation that could change the outcome of elections," said Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), who has proposed federal legislation to tighten the security of electronic voting machines. "We ignore this at our peril," Holt said.

To compensate for the flaws, the report urges elections officials to take a number of steps. They include removing wireless components, conducting random audits of paper records and decentralizing the voting systems' administration and programming.

Norden said there was time to implement these safeguards before November's elections, and copies of the report are being distributed to every secretary of state in the country.

Read more about Government IT in Computerworld's Government IT Topic Center.



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