Experts warn Congress of e-voting woes; paper-trail mandate fails

They're concerned about problem-plagued voting in November

With hotly contested nationwide elections just weeks away, several computer experts today questioned the reliability and security of e-voting systems during a congressional committee hearing.

Access doors of thousands of Diebold AccuVote-TS touch-screen systems can all be opened with the same key -- a type commonly used for office furniture, jukeboxes and hotel minibars, Princeton University computer science professor Edward Felten told the committee. That door protects the removable memory card that stores votes.

"Though some claim that election procedures will prevent the kinds of problems we identified, the rigid procedures described in vendor manuals are often ignored in practice," said Felten, co-author of a study that was highly critical of Diebold Election Systems Inc.'s AccuVote TS.

Also today, the Committee on House Administration took no action on legislation proposed by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) aimed at remedying e-voting vulnerabilities. The Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act (HR 550), introduced last February, now has more than 200 bipartisan co-sponsors.

Among its various provisions, HR 550 would mandate that each machine produce a paper receipt that could be used in a recount. The bill also calls for e-voting vendors to offer greater transparency to their software. By not sending the bill to the floor for a vote, the committee missed any chance of ensuring that November's elections would produce auditable results, Holt said.

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 was aimed at preventing the sort of notorious failures such as occurred in Florida in 2000 due to disputes over manually operated punch-card systems.

Some $3 billion was earmarked under HAVA to fund state compliance, with most of that money going to purchase e-voting gear, said committee chairman Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) in his opening remarks for the hearing. "Though HAVA did not require the adoption of any particular kind of technology, many jurisdictions purchased electronic voting systems because they felt these systems were best able to meet the requirements of HAVA," said Ehlers.

"Not surprisingly, some jurisdictions using this new equipment for the first time have encountered some difficulties," he said. Ehlers cited recent problems in Montgomery County, Md., with e-voting gear (see "Maryland county struggles with e-voting 'fiasco'").

Earlier this week, Holt submitted an amendment to HAVA to reimburse any voting jurisdictions that print out paper ballots for voters who prefer not to cast their votes on touch-screen voting gear this November. Similar legislation was filed by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in the Senate. The bill calls for up to 75 cents to be spent per paper ballot.

Holt estimated that it would probably cost no more than $10 million, based on the estimate of the number of voters in precincts using touch-screen gear that don't offer a paper trail. He told Computerworld he offered the amendment because he didn't expect HR 550 to be passed this year.

"We thought in light of the problems we've seen, most recently in Maryland, that collectively, these problems were shaking voters' confidence," he said. "We thought if jurisdictions want to give voters another choice, we should support them in that."

Holt declined to predict when or if the emergency amendment would pass. Like all House members, Holt is up for re-election this year, and his district uses e-voting gear. "Certainly, any voting system that is not verifiable and auditable is of concern," he said.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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