E-voting activists praise Ohio plan to fix e-voting system

But they fear quick 'cures' might worsen problems before '08 presidential vote

While lauding Ohio officials for a new report that calls for major security and election integrity-related changes in the state's e-voting systems, several e-voting activists today urged state officials to go slow when making wholesale changes ahead of next year's presidential primary and general election.

Their concern, they say, is that moving too quickly without adequate analysis could lead to a new set of problems without solving any of the current ones.

In a telephone briefing with reporters today, representatives of three e-voting watchdog groups praised the e-voting security report released Friday by Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. But they said they fear that that many of the recommendations in the 86-page document can't be implemented fully before the 2008 elections.

"We're hoping that the secretary's recommendations will be the beginning of a conversation ... to make Ohio's elections more secure and not the end of that conversation," said Lawrence Norden, counsel in the Brennan Center for Justice Program at the New York University School of Law. "We're concerned about some of the recommendations, particularly because they would be implemented in a short time before two critical elections."

One of Brunner's recommendations is that the state begin counting vote totals in a centralized location rather than counting votes in individual voting precincts. The idea, according to the report, is that using a centralized location would reduce the number of ways hackers might be able to infiltrate election systems.

The problem with centralized vote counting, however, is that an e-voting software or hardware glitch could cause systemwide problems that could potentially lead to large-scale vote losses, Norden said. "I'm concerned this would make voting less secure in Ohio," he said.

Norden is also unconvinced that Ohio is ready to move ahead with another recommendation and allow voters to submit their ballots by mail on a broader scale. "There are issues with the security of counting all ballots in one place without an audit," he said. In addition, "Ohio and post offices don't have enough experience delivering ballots by mail" and ensuring the system will be secure and accurate, he said. "It seems unnecessarily risky to me. I don't think it should be implemented until they can figure out how to reduce these problems."

Another idea, to use consolidated regional "voting centers" in areas with fewer than five voting precincts, is also problematic, he said. "It's worth looking at, but not to do it quickly now," Norden said. "It could disenfranchise voters in poor neighborhoods who don't have access to transportation to get to voting centers" farther from their homes.

Candice Hoke, director for the Center for Election Integrity at Cleveland State University, agreed that any adoption of the recommendations should be done cautiously. "It could lead to an unsuccessful election if the [state] went ahead with the recommendations right now," Hoke said.

The report was conducted at Brunner's request between Oct. 5 and Dec. 7. Teams of academic researchers, scientists and accredited e-voting system testing labs evaluated the state's current hardware and software and suggested ways to improve the system. The full report, "Evaluation & Validation of Election-Related Equipment, Standards & Testing," known as Project EVEREST, can be downloaded from the secretary of state's Web site (download PDF).

Pamela Smith, president of the nonprofit Verified Voting Foundation, said that rather than quickly implementing some of the more controversial recommendations in the report, Ohio officials should look at "short-term steps that could be taken instead" to make useful changes before next year's elections.

"Greater transparency of our elections through more scrutiny is actually a good thing," Smith said. "Every voter wants to know that if they bother to show up and make their choices that their votes will be counted."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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