Electronic Voting Systems Pass Their Big Test -- Maybe

Vendors say election validates technology; critics not convinced

Electronic voting systems avoided the virtual meltdown that some people had predicted during last Tuesday's election. But critics said the technology still has significant shortcomings that raise questions about the validity of the results tabulated by the machines.

Officials in various states said they encountered relatively minor glitches, such as a North Carolina county's inability to account for about 4,500 ballots cast on touch-screen systems. Nonetheless, the apparently largely successful use of the 175,000 or so e-voting systems deployed throughout much of the U.S. led proponents to call the election a validation of the technology.

"Electronic voting machines took an important test on Nov. 2 and passed with flying colors," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, an IT industry lobbying group in Arlington, Va.

Britt Kauffman, president and CEO of Austin-based Hart InterCivic Inc., whose e-Slate touch-screen systems were used in nine states, said all the reports he has seen point to a "relatively smooth Election Day" for the millions of voters who cast electronic ballots.

But voter monitoring groups posted accounts of incidents that they said show the need for nationwide technical and procedural e-voting standards.

The lack of standards and the inability to verify vote tabulations has created a potentially flawed election process, some critics claimed.

"We need some way of assessing what has happened after the fact," said Peter Neumann, principal scientist at SRI International's Computer Science Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif., and chairman of the National Committee for Voting Integrity (NCVI), a Washington-based advocacy group. "It is extremely difficult to determine what happened because there is an absence of accountability and auditing in those machines."

A voter in Maryland tests an electronic voting machine.

A voter in Maryland tests an electronic voting machine.

Image Credit: The Associated Press

Doug Jones, an NCVI member and an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, said voting "went remarkably smoothly, considering that we had record turnout and considering that it was scrutinized with more intensity then I can remember." But he said little is known about what can go wrong when people use e-voting systems.

"All we can do is compare the number of ballots with the number of votes recorded and wonder, 'Why did people come to the polling place to cast a blank ballot?' " Jones said.

The use of e-voting machines that don't produce a paper record of votes "is the most perplexing thing I've ever seen," said Lillie Coney, NCVI coordinator and a senior policy analyst at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. Part of the problem lies with state and local election officials who aren't savvy IT buyers, Coney contended. "They're relying strictly on what their vendors tell them," she said. "If their vendors tell them it's secure, it's secure."

Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, volunteered as a poll worker in Timonium, Md., last Tuesday. An NCVI member and a critic of the security controls built into e-voting software, Rubin claimed that Diebold Inc. touch-screen systems at the polling place were left unattended overnight on the eve of the election and were configured by two election officials from the same political party.

Rubin said there currently is no way to know if someone has tampered with e-voting ballots. "If you drive without a seat belt, as we did in this election, and you don't crash, that doesn't mean you should conclude that it is safe to drive that way," he said.

Michigan plans to install optical scanning equipment in all 5,300 of its precincts by 2006, said Ken Silfven, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office. Voting on touch-screen systems went smoothly at 23 precincts in a single county last week, Silfven said. But he added that optical scanning is being adopted statewide to standardize voting equipment and address concerns about the need for a paper trail.

On the other hand, South Carolina officials plan to expand the use of iVotronic touch-screen systems from Election Systems & Software Inc. to all of the state's 46 counties beginning next year, said Marci Andino, executive director of the South Carolina State Election Commission. About 5,000 of the machines, which can store images of all electronic ballots in case recounts are ordered, were used in 15 counties last week.

Voters in a handful of precincts had to switch to paper ballots at the start of voting because of mistakes by poll workers that were quickly resolved, Andino said. "None of the problems were from machine failures," she said, adding that the e-voting systems performed "exceptionally well."

Todd R. Weiss and Heather Havenstein contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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