April 23, 2004


Elections Panel Recommends Voting Machine Ban


By W. David Gardner, TechWeb News  


A California elections panel examining computerized voting machines has unanimously recommended that machines using touch-screen technology be banned in some California counties. This is further evidence that attempts across the nation to upgrade and safeguard voting procedures won't be implemented in time for the November elections.  The California Voting Systems and Procedures Panel, Thursday, singled out Diebold Election Systems for criticism, some of it virulent. "I'm disgusted by the actions of this company," said Marc Carrel, a panel member, according to press reports. Diebold has been the poster boy for criticism on computerized voting, after different voting jurisdictions criticized the firm.


"Electronic voting machines have a long-documented history of abuse and flaws," said David Mertz, of the Open Voting Consortium (OVV), in an interview. "The source code needs to be public, to be open for inspection by any voter so there is confidence." Mertz is a founding member and software architect of the non-profit OVC's voting system.


The OVC and a voting company, VoteHere Inc., have posted the source code for their respective systems on Web sites so outside observers can study the software and report any flaws. Security and privacy companies routinely make their encryption algorithms public to encourage experts to test the code for weaknesses.


After the election fiasco of the 2000, voting irregularities in many states were exposed, and Congress subsequently passed the multibillion-dollar "Help America Vote Act" in an effort to fix the problems. Many viewed electronic voting as a panacea, but OVC's Mertz said it's now evident that many of the hoped-for improvements involving voting machines won't be available for the upcoming election.


"They [the improvements] won't be ready in time for [this] election," he said. "And now it's not so much the coding that's the problem--it's the certification process." Voting jurisdictions must certify voting procedures that are usually time-consuming and require third-party auditing.


At the California hearing, panel members complained that Diebold had sold counties software that never received state and federal certification. The widespread fear is that uncertified software is susceptible to tampering by hackers. When Professor Aviel Rubin, of John Hopkins University, analyzed Diebold voting-machine code several months ago, he said he found flaws. Like many experts in the field, Rubin has urged that auditable election machines be produced.


The California panel recommended that some Diebold machine models be banned from the November elections. Diebold denied the allegations against it, and a company spokesman said he will prepare a report outlining its objections and present it to the panel.


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