Inside Bay Area


E-voting machine tests face delay

Vendors, Los Angeles in talks with state elections officials


By Ian Hoffman, STAFF WRITER

Article Last Updated: 05/15/2007 02:51:27 AM PDT


The nation's largest suppliers of voting equipment have handed their machines over to California elections officials for what experts say is the toughest testing the industry has experienced.


But several vendors and Los Angeles County, the largest voting jurisdiction in the country and technically a voting-equipment vendor itself because of its custom-made voting system, remained in talks Monday with state elections officials about the extent of the review, what would be done with its findings and more.


Those talks are likely to delay scrutiny of California's main voting systems by teams of computer scientists, security experts and voting policy analysts until at least the end of this week.


Secretary of State Debra Bowen promised such a "top-to-bottom review" of voting systems during her campaign for office. The review that she has ordered touches on reliability, accuracy and ballot privacy, among other values.


But local elections officials and voting-equipment suppliers have worried that the review's heavy emphasis on security would work against highly computerized touch-screen voting machines which Bowen and her supporters lambasted on the campaign trail as well as older systems such as Los Angeles County's that tally votes on a hulking mainframe computer.


Other states, such as Florida, have hired computer experts to study narrow portions of the all-important software inside certain voting machines; some, such as Maryland and Ohio, have had computer security experts explore the vulnerability of specific machines to vote hacking or attacks that would prevent voting. New York also is establishing its own voting-system testing.


But California is the only state to have ordered all of its voting systems undergo line-by-line software review, "red team" attacks and live testing by voters with a variety of disabilities, among other tests, or be barred from use in the state.


Bowen spokeswoman Nicole Winger said the review was expected to begin Friday or soon after.


"We are having productive discussions with every vendor," she said.


Three teams would study the eight primary voting systems in California sold by Diebold Elections Systems, Inc., Sequoia Voting Systems, Elections Systems & Software, and Hart Intercivic for about three weeks each, with final reports due to Bowen by the end of July. If she is to remove any voting system from use, Bowen is required by state law to give at least six months notice before the next statewide election, yielding a decision deadline by the first week in August.


As of last week, only Oakland-based Sequoia was cooperating fully in the review and had handed over not only its machines but also its all-important software in human-readable form. Other vendors have sued or negotiated tight restrictions to avoid such sweeping software reviews in other states.


But experts in voting technology say they expect all of the nation's leading vendors eventually will do what California elections officials ask.


"Any vendor who said no to a state as big as California would be shooting themselves in the foot," said Douglas Jones, a voting-system tester in Iowa and computer-science professor at the University of Iowa. "You can walk away from little states they've done it in Iowa but you can't do that with the big states. To walk away from them is basically to admit inadequacy."


Contact Ian Hoffman at or (510) 208-6458.


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