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Ohio brings in experts to review troubled e-voting systems

Ahead of the 2008 elections, it's hoping to head off problems

By Todd R. Weiss
October 16, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A Denver-based e-voting testing laboratory and experts from three universities have been hired by the state of Ohio to undertake independent evaluations of the states' e-voting hardware, software and processes. The move is aimed at finding and fixing potential problems before the 2008 presidential election.

The work is being done under a $1.7 million contract awarded earlier this summer by the state to get an in-depth picture of how the e-voting system is working. Since the 2000 presidential election, critics of e-voting systems have voiced concerns about the accuracy, integrity and security of e-voting results and have pushed for tougher means of ensuring that every vote cast is properly counted.

Ohio has faced e-voting problems in several elections in which electronic machines were used, including a May 2006 primary election, when a host of accuracy problems were reported.

The evaluation process was announced by newly elected Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner after she took office in January. Chris Nance, Ohio's assistant secretary of state, said today that the review will test a representative sample of the 40,000 e-voting machines and systems used in Ohio's 88 counties to determine what changes and improvements need to be made. "This is a risk assessment" being done to identify potential vulnerabilities in the related systems, Nance said.

After a competitive hiring process this summer, Ohio tapped Denver-based SysTest Labs Inc. to conduct the evaluation. SysTest Labs is accredited by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission for e-voting system certification and testing, .

In a first for Ohio, and perhaps the nation, three computer security researchers from three major universities -- Pennsylvania State University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Santa Barbara -- are also conducting independent evaluations of the state's e-voting systems. Those reviews will be submitted along with the ones being done by SysTest Labs.

Having evaluations from various sources "creates this range of feedback," said Nance.

The e-voting hardware in the state is primarily from Omaha-based Election Systems & Software and Allen, Texas-based Premier Election Solutions, formerly known as Diebold Election Systems Inc. Two counties use machines from Austin-based Hart InterCivic Inc.

Brian Phillips, president of SysTest Labs, said that the testing processes began Sept. 24 and will be completed by Nov. 30. The performance testing covers hardware and election management software, as well as the polling place devices and the central counting applications that tally all the votes, he said.

The company is conducting configuration management testing to ensure that the e-voting system hardware and software matches the specifications of the certified systems allowed in elections across Ohio, he said. Also being reviewed are systems that prevent any changes or updates in the hardware or software without the approval of election officials.

Final reports from the reviews will be delivered Dec. 14 to Brunner's office. Those reports will then be evaluated by the governor and legislature for any action that may be needed, Nance said.

"It is certainly the intention... for any secretary of state... to put in place a set of policies and procedures" to ensure that every vote is properly counted, Nance said. "The American electorate has seen that there are issues related to electronic voting. We would not have spent $1.7 million for this study if we felt we were on a fool's errand. It is our responsibility to put together our very best effort to do that."

"Is this a perfect plan? Is this the perfect approach? I don't think there is anything that is a perfect plan or approach. This is our best plan."

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