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Q&A: Go back to paper ballots, says e-voting expert

Avi Rubin, a Maryland elections judge and professor, cites security woes

By Marc L. Songini
September 20, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Avi Rubin is unique in that he is both a professor of computer science who specializes in e-voting security issues and someone who directly participates in the electoral process as a Maryland elections judge. His interest in e-voting began when he co-authored a study of Diebold Election Systems Inc. touch-screen voting software, released in July 2003. Rubin is also the author of Brave New Ballot: The Battle to Safeguard Democracy in the Age of Electronic Voting. The book, released this month, is highly critical of the security of e-voting machines used across the nation. Rubin, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, participated as an election judge in last week's primary in Baltimore County and detailed his experiences in a blog.

This week, Rubin talked with Computerworld about e-voting, last week's elections and his new book. Excerpts from that interview follow:

Can you talk about that original study you made of Diebold's AccuVote TS machine code? The software in the AccuVote TS machine was really bad. One comment I made at the time was that if a student had turned in a program like that, he'd have gotten an F. It had outdated encryption, which was used in [the] wrong places and in the wrong mode of operation. The list goes on and on. Some [glitches] are comical. Diebold said they have a new system that fixes them, but I have no way to find out. That's their track record -- they're always saying, "It's an old system." They're saying that about the Princeton study. We asked for the new machines but were never given access. All I can say is that they say they fixed them, but I can't tell if they did, and some of the fixes are nontrivial.

What's the main point made in your book? It says the country moved too quickly to e-voting and there are security and transparency problems and it was a big mistake. It's a first-person narrative, and an exciting story of what happened that blends together all the issues. I have two chapters devoted to my experience as an election judge in 2004. One thing that came out of that was that people were always saying, "He might know a lot about computers, but doesn't understand how elections work." I have a good understanding of how elections work now. It also gave me a lot of credibility with the federal Election Assistance Commission.

What happened in last week's primary election in Maryland? There were problems in Baltimore County, as there were in Montgomery County, correct? The problems weren't as bad in Baltimore County. The e-poll books were crashing a lot, and some precincts didn't get their voter access cards. We had 10 minutes of waiting time, and at some point, up to an hour, and that was too long. One voting machine crashed. One froze up when tallying the votes and then 10 minutes later came back online.

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