Q&A: For e-voting, Holt looks to undo HAVA's havoc

The race is on to make every vote auditable in time for the November elections

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) has forced upon the electorate immature, insecure e-voting systems that undermine confidence in the elections process, says U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ). The good news, he says, is that untangling the problem may not be out of reach -- even before the November general election -- if we move quickly.

Electronic voting systems purchased and pressed into service in the wake of HAVA have failed significant tests. Several states have examined the machines they had previously selected and found them seriously lacking. In fact, the California Secretary of State last year de-certified the Diebold Inc., Hart InterCivic Inc. and Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. direct recording electronic (DRE) systems the state had previously committed to after machines from all those companies failed in testing. And in December, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner released the EVEREST study, which reported that leading systems have failed basic firewall, antivirus, password and system-configuration safety checks -- making them vulnerable to the most basic attack methods.

Security aside, the biggest problem with e-voting systems is that there is no way to attest to the validity of a voter record, says Holt, who holds a B.A. in physics and a 1979 patent for a type of density gradient. For the past six years, Holt has championed the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act (H.R. 811), which would require voter-verifiable paper ballots and random, mandatory audits of votes cast over e-voting systems in all counties across all states.

H.R. 811 passed the House Administration Committee in May and is awaiting a full House vote. In the meantime, there are the 2008 elections to attend to, so in January, Holt announced the Emergency Assistance for Secure Electronic Elections Act of 2008. That bill would provide $500 million to reimburse states for costs incurred in adding a paper-based system for verification and audit.

According to Verified Voting, 22 states have not yet implemented voter-verified paper records (VVPR) for every vote. VVPRs allow individual voters to examine the accuracy of the ballots they've just marked before each ballot is tallied.

Can political efforts like Holt's and grass-roots efforts such as those by Verified Voting reach the these 22 states in time? We asked Holt to speak briefly on the current situation.

E-voting is second on your list of issues. Why is this particular issue so important to you personally? I attribute it to the scientist part of me. Scientists and engineers would look all look at these systems and say, "You need a paper receipt that verifies the vote." A politician, on the other hand, is slow to recognize that software can't verify itself. The politician in me saw that [the lack of ability to verify votes] was a critical flaw in our voting systems, which could undermine confidence in the entire voting process.

How do paper votes make the system more trustworthy? If you're going to be able to verify, there has to be an independent path accessible only to the person able to verify that the voter's intentions are reflected in the vote. And the only person to do that is the voter himself. It follows, then, that it has to be a paper ballot record that the voter can see and verify before they cast it.

If there is a voter-verified paper ballot, that ballot belongs to the election system. The voter doesn't carry it away. It's kept under lock and key the same way that all election records are kept. It's subject to inspection only with a bipartisan, duly formed group of witnesses.

Tell us about your emergency bill to cover costs for polls wanting to produce voter-verified paper records. There are about 20 states which have, in whole or in part, unauditable e-voting systems. That means more than one county in some states, and in some cases, it means all counties across the entire state. You can be sure that there will be some states or counties where, come the November election, their results will be disputed on the federal level. In those locations, those questions could not be resolved because there is no record of the voter's intention.

In presidential and senate races, if there is any county of the state in doubt, then the whole state and even the whole election is in doubt. We haven't even finished setting a national standard that would apply to all votes cast in federal elections. Right now, all we can do is encourage as many counties as possible to do the right thing, give them some incentive and provide reimbursement for their cost of using verified paper records and audits.

On Jan. 15, your state's governor, Democrat Jon S. Corzine, signed into law S-507/A-2730 requiring random, mandatory audits of election results. What does that mean for your bill? There are more states that have auditable elections than there are states that actually audit their elections. They're auditable in that there is an independent verified record of the vote. But they don't require an audit, which is only going halfway.

In New Jersey, we have the peculiar situation where we now require an audit, but we don't have anything to audit. The bill was passed in anticipation that the existing state law requiring a verified paper record would be in effect. The state attorney general delayed that by putting unnecessary constraints around the equipment to make paper records. She wanted to add printers to existing DRE machines, and the companies making those printers hadn't gotten high marks in reliability.

How do you retrofit e-voting machines to support VVPRs? Retrofitting the machines may not be the best way to do it. It might be better to have paper ballots -- marked ballots that we're already used to using. I've tried to be careful not to be too prescriptive in how each state does it. I just want to make sure each state has a voter-verified paper ballot record and that it's auditable.

Is it possible to do this in time for the November elections? Some people say there isn't time. There is time. I'll give one example, but there are many. The state of New Mexico overhauled their entire election system [starting] in March 2006, when the governor signed legislation to facilitate disabled voters, to being usable in November that same year.

Do you think we need additional legislation to force security rules on these e-voting system vendors? The legislation that I would like to see would have chain-of-custody requirements and transparency of software so that the software would be available for independent people to check. But the best single thing we could do is to have an independent audit of randomly chosen precincts in each federal election. An audit will be the most direct, simplest way of uncovering problems even if there is a software error, be it innocent or malicious.

Deb Radcliff is a freelance writer based in northern California.

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