Counting ballots

Two new developments expose more flaws in electronic touch-screen voting


Albany Times Union

Saturday, January 13, 2007


The case for optical scan voting machines -- and, by extension, the case against touch-screen electronic voting machines -- grows stronger every day. Two recent cases in point:


First, a New York Times report, reprinted in this newspaper, disclosed that the federal government has temporarily suspended a laboratory entrusted with certifying touch-screen machines after it failed to document that it was conducting all the required procedures. The lab, Ciber Inc., based in Colorado, has also been criticized by consultants hired by New York state. The lapses include such crucial areas as vote-counting software and security. One expert told the Times that the systems Ciber has already certified, and which have been used in elections, are suspect.


By contrast, optical scan machines provide verifiable records because voters mark paper ballots, much as bettors mark a lottery ticket, which are scanned electronically, and kept in storage in case they need to be reviewed under challenge.


In a second development, a federal judge in Florida has reinforced the worst nightmare raised by opponents of electronic voting machines by denying petitioners access to a voting machine's source code, which is needed to confirm results in a close election in the 13th Congressional District.


Opponents of touch-screen machines, which are similar to ATMs, have long argued that even if they produce a paper trail, as required by New York state law, there is no guarantee that the software is free of glitches, or that hackers can't manipulate the results. Now it turns out that these very concerns are under review at Ciber Inc., the nation's largest tester of vote-counting software.


Opponents have also raised concerns that the law gives manufacturers of touch-screen machines protection from court challenges seeking an independent review of balloting. To conduct such a review, it would be necessary to obtain the voting machine's source code, to see if the process was flawed. But opponents have long warned that getting a source code is all but impossible because courts routinely deem them to be proprietary information that is beyond the reach of an election challenge. That was just the reasoning used in the Florida decision, when the judge turned away a source code request, even though there was evidence of an unusually high number of nonrecorded votes.


New York has lagged behind the rest of the nation in deciding on new voting machines to comply with the Help America Vote Act. But there could turn out to be an up side to that delay. Even if New York should wind up losing some federal compliance dollars, it will be a price worth paying for getting it right.


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