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E-voting security under fire in San Diego lawsuit

Machine practices, ballot reliability in doubt

By Marc L. Songini
August 4, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - 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.

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