Inside Bay Area

07/31/2007 02:28:44 AM PDT


E-voting machine vendors, election officials slam review



SACRAMENTO Voting machine vendors and election officials at a hearing Monday assailed Secretary of State Debra Bowen's "top-to-bottom" review of electronic voting systems for failing to consider real-world responses to potential hacking and vote-rigging. Voting-rights activists, meanwhile, urged her to scrap all e-voting systems and return to paper ballots.


Bowen has the rest of the week to sort it all out before she decides whether to decertify the three voting systems in use in California, place conditions on them, or leave them alone. A report filed last week showed that all three systems Sequoia, Diebold and Hart InterCivic were easily hacked by a team of computer experts Bowen had commissioned to probe the machines for weaknesses.


Sequoia Voting Systems, which is used in Alameda, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties, called the review an "unrealistic, worst-case scenario" performed in a laboratory environment by computer security experts with unfettered access to the machines.


But activists implored Bowen to ignore the voting system vendors, whom they said should not be rewarded for designing systems that make votes vulnerable to hacking.


County elections officials are anxious to have the machines certified because the California presidential primary is only six months away.


The review was completed in five weeks, a time span that even Bowen's team of computer experts said was too brief to offer a complete understanding of the systems' flaws. Bowen called the truncated testing time her greatest regret, but forced by a state mandate that she make her determinations by Friday six months before the Feb. 5 primary.


Bowen defeated her predecessor, Bruce McPherson, last fall after assailing him for certifying a Diebold system that had been earlier decertified, as well as a Sequioa system that she said was vulnerable to hacking.


But the vendors struck back Monday with criticism of their own, accusing Bowen of failing to live up to her promise to conduct a comprehensive review.


All that has been proved, said Steven Bennett, a sales executive for Sequoia Voting Systems, "is that any computerized system, removed from its environment and placed, in this case, literally, out in the street or into a laboratory for anyone to tamper with, can be successfully attacked."


Kathy Rogers, an official for Diebold Election Systems, who could not attend the hearing because storms had delayed her flight, had her statement read at the hearing. All voting systems in a "laboratory environment" are vulnerable, Rogers wrote.


"This is why California and other states and voting jurisdictions have security procedures and protocols," Rogers said, "covering everything from equipment storage requirements to logic and accuracy testing on Election Day."


Hart InterCivic, used in San Mateo, said it was "disappointing and a disservice that none of the well-designed security aspects of the Hart Voting System were acknowledged in the report."


Election officials throughout the state also blasted the review, saying it didn't take into account their expertise or the security procedures they've already put into place to deter tampering and fraud.


"I am sorry to say that I find the approach of the so-called top-to-bottom review to be more to do with headlines," said Contra Costa County registrar Stephen Weir, the president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, "than with definitive science or the pursuit of legitimate public policy."


San Diego clerk Deborah Seiler, a former sales representative for Diebold and Sequoia, cautioned Bowen to avoid "drawing extreme conclusions based on a study that was billed as a top-to-bottom review but was not even close to that."


Activists, conversely, demanded that Bowen take quick action.


Emily Levy, of Bradblog, a California-based Web site devoted to electronic-voting issues, said vendors had misrepresented their products, installed uncertified software and cut corners in developing the security of their systems.


"Clearly, they're not guided by ethics or a commitment to the public good," Levy said. "Is it so unbelievable they might rig an election?"


The next step, Levy said, is for Bowen to decertify the three systems and "send the vendors packing and tell them not to come back."


Eva Roberson, a former election administrator in Santa Rosa County, said vendors should be forced to take back the electronic touch-screen machines and provide a refund to registrars who have paid millions for the systems.


"It's clear these touch-screens were sold to registrars based on false representation that they were protected from hacking," Roberson said. "It's been demonstrated over and over again that these statements by the vendors are not true and that they knew it or should have known their machines were not safe from hacking."


Greg Tabor, a Bay Area engineer, implored Bowen to "please decertify Sequoia we can't rely on election workers' integrity. Please don't depend on men acting like angels."


Contact Steven Harmon at or (916) 441-2101.


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