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latimes.com, From the Los Angeles Times

August 4, 2007

 

State decides to secure electronic voting machines

Secretary of State orders more precautions be taken against tampering, and withdraws support of the InkaVote Plus machines used in Southern California.

 

By Jordan Rau and Hector Becerra

Times Staff Writers

 

SACRAMENTO Expressing concern that several brands of electronic voting machines used in California were vulnerable to tampering, Secretary of State Debra Bowen late Friday ordered new security protections be added and limited the use of two types of machines that were to be

used in next year's elections in several Southern California counties.

 

Bowen also withdrew state approval of the InkaVote Plus machines used in Los Angeles County, saying that the machines' maker, Election Systems and Software, had failed to submit its equipment to her office in time to analyze its vulnerability to hacking.

 

She said her office would examine the InkaVote machines and expressed optimism that they would win approval in time to be used in next year's elections, but did not say what would happen if the machines failed her tests.

 

"When NASA discovers a flow or a potential safety concern in the space shuttle, it doesn't continue launching the missions...," Bowen said. "It scrubs the missions until the problem is fixed."

 

Her announcement, made just nine minutes before a midnight deadline, was condemned by the head of the state's county registrar's association, Contra Costa Registrar Stephen Weir.

 

Weir said Bowen's actions -- along with an unusual audit in which she dispatched several computer experts to try to hack into the machines, which they did -- had undermined public confidence in the security of the new electronic machines. But her solutions, he said, would not do anything to restore the public peace of mind, especially for elections that will occur this year, such as a special Congressional election in Los Angeles in two weeks.

 

"I think the secretary has redefined the definition of midnight madness," Weir said. He said that while he was not sure what the impact of the new rules would be, they had enough potential for causing chaos and delays at the polls that he encouraged people to vote by mail. Her restrictions on the use of two types of machines to one per polling place would require the printing of far more paper ballots that planned, and that could prove difficult to achieve.

 

"Tens of millions of additional ballots, you don't just go to Kinkos," Weir said. "The timing is way too tight."

 

He also predicted that the changes could delay the counting of votes. "If people don't see results, they start going 'something's wrong,' " he said.

 

Bowen ordered that some machines made by Diebold Election Systems and Sequoia Voting Systems be limited to one per polling place to limit the chances that they could be tampered with. The Sequoia machines are used in Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura Counties.

 

Bowen said the presence of the machines, though limited, would be helpful for disabled voters, though any voter could use the machines. Weir, however, said she was creating a "separate but unequal" voting system.

 

The security requirements Bowen imposed include: reinstalling the software before the Feb. 5. election to ensure it has not already been tampered with; placing special seals at vulnerable parts of the machines to reveal tampering; securing each machines at the close of each day of early voting; assigning a specific election monitor to safeguard each machine; and conducting a complete manual count of all votes cast.

 

Sequoia issued a statement early Saturday morning expressing "disappointment" at Bowen's actions. "Electronic voting systems have never been successfully tampered with in an actual election," Sequoia spokeswoman Michelle M. Shafer said. "That same statement cannot be made about lever machines and paper-based voting systems throughout our nation's history."

 

Only some of the security requirements -- involving heightened security and auditing of results -- were placed on machines made by Hart InterCivic. Those are used in Orange Counties.

 

Alan Dechert, president of Open Voting Consortium, and group that is critical of the electronic voting machines, said many activists would be critical that Bowen did not completely decertify those machines. "She's not asking for changes to hardware or software," he said. "This is not really doing much for transparency."

 

Bowen's actions came on the heels of an audit she released last week. It found that machines manufactured by Diebold Hart and Sequoia-which are used by more than twenty Californian counties--could be compromised either through manipulating the software or physically breaking into the computer hardware.

 

Bowen's announcement was made under odd circumstances. A press conference originally planned to be held Friday afternoon was delayed hour after hour as Bowen and her aides worked feverishly in her Sacramento office to issue her orders at least six months before the Feb. 5 presidential primaries. The requirements do not apply to any elections that occur before then.

 

Bowen emerged at 11:51 a.m. to issue her opinions to a small group of print and television reporters who had been camped downstairs for the evening.

 

"This is the most frustrating thing. Why would she do something like this, make people wait this long for something that should have been taken care of ages ago?" said Assemblyman Anthony Adams (R-Hesperia) in a telephone interview from San Bernardino County.

 

Bowen's actions are sure to add to the debate around the country about the potential for electronic voting machines to be infiltrated by hackers trying to changes the results of races.

 

Increasingly, states are moving toward electronic voting machines, prompting lawmakers and other to argue over what can be done to prevent hacking. The U.S. Congress has been debating whether to require all electronic voting machines to produce paper records.

 

Bowen has long been outspoken in her concerns about electronic voting. Last year, she defeated incumbent Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, a Republican who was appointed to the job by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005.

 

The campaign hinged largely on the candidates' differences over the trustworthiness of the voting machines.

 

During the March 2004 primary in California, touch-screen voting terminals by Diebold malfunctioned, and state election officials discovered that the machines contained uncertified software.

 

The state barred four counties from using Diebold but later approved their use in 11 counties after those jurisdictions agreed to new security requirements, including making paper ballots available as an alternative.

 

Bowen's audit has been harshly criticized by election officials across the state who said the testing was done in a manner inconsistent with real-life situations.

 

The University of California tried to infiltrate the three companies' machines physically and electronically without facing the safeguards that voting machine vendors or counties use. The testers were provided with encrypted source codes by the companies that government employees would not have.

 

"It was akin to testing the security of your money in a bank with unlocked doors, with no security guards or even bank tellers in sight and the bank's vault wide open," said Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack.

 

Other election officials said decertifying machines now would cause major problems. "Six months is not a lot of time to make any wholesale changes," San Diego County Registrar Deborah Seiler said before Bowen's announcement.

 

jordan.rau@latimes.com

hector.becerra@latimes.com

 

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times