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Q&A: E-voting security results 'awful,' says Ohio secretary of state

How bad? 'I thought I was going to throw up,' Jennifer Brunner recalls

By Brad Friedman
October 8, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner will be under the national spotlight next month, overseeing what's expected to be the state's largest-ever turnout for a presidential election. It will also be her first as the state's chief election official.

The stakes will be just as high as they were for her Republican predecessor, J. Kenneth Blackwell, four years ago, when the narrowly decided state election was marred by charges of questionable results and complaints that some residents, largely in minority areas, were forced to wait hours to cast their votes.

This year, denizens of the Buckeye State who mistrust touch-screen systems will be allowed to vote on a paper ballot if they prefer. The directive to allow "paper or plastic" came in the wake of Brunner's landmark 2007 "Evaluation & Validation of Election-Related Equipment, Standards & Testing" analysis, otherwise known as EVEREST, in which "critical security failures" were found in every system tested by several teams of both corporate and academic computer scientists and security experts.

Ohio officials discovered in March that some voting systems manufactured by Premier Elections Solutions Inc., a subsidiary of Diebold Inc., dropped votes as they were being uploaded to a main server. Because the problem is in the tabulator system, it affects votes cast on both Diebold's direct recording electronic (DRE) systems, which are usually touch screen, and paper ballot optical-scan systems. The same central tabulators will be used in more than 30 states next month.

Unfortunately, correcting the problem is not as easy as simply applying a patch to work around the problem. Voting systems, at least at the federal level, must be certified as an entire end-to-end unit. In order to receive a certification "stamp of approval" from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), companies must submit every piece of hardware and software to be used -- such as optical-scan devices, "paper trail" printers and central tabulators -- as a single unit so that tests can determine whether they all work together without conflict.

Critics have long complained that testing at the federal level has been lax and secretive. Recently, the EAC revamped its certification process, but it has yet to approve any of the systems currently submitted by vendors. Therefore, systems criticized as insecure in the EVEREST study will once again be in use this November.

Brad Friedman, publisher of The Brad Blog, recently sat down with Brunner to discuss the many challenges she has faced since taking office as Ohio's first Democratic secretary of state in 16 years. Those challenges range from the delicate task of encouraging county election administrators to move to more secure and verifiable voting systems to addressing concerns about how to best ensure that votes will be counted accurately in the upcoming election. The following are edited excerpts from that conversation.

I think other election officials around the country are now realizing, thanks to you and [California Secretary of State Deborah Bowen] coming up with these tests, that it's not just crazy bloggers who are concerned about this stuff.

Oh no, no. When I finally saw the results of our [EVEREST] tests, I thought I was going to throw up.

I didn't think it would be that bad. And it was -- it was awful. I looked at it on a Saturday morning, and that night I went to bed and woke up [just before 4:00 on] Sunday morning going, "Oh my God." I never wake up on the weekends -- trust me.

You know, I've been pushing against the tide, but when Premier [Elections Solutions] sent that letter out [admitting that their tabulators drop votes], it's like vindication.



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