systems 'can't be trusted'|
Machines at risk for fraud,
Florida's voting snafus during the 2000 presidential election
pale in comparison to the vulnerabilities of high-tech voting
machines counties throughout the nation are scrambling to buy in
compliance with a new federal law, several top computer scientists
"What we know is that the machines can't be trusted. It's an
unlocked bank vault ..., a disaster waiting to happen," said David
Dill, a Stanford University computer science professor who has
prompted more than 110 fellow scientists to sign a petition calling
for more accountability in voting technology.
The researchers fear that problems with software systems will
result in hacking and voter fraud, allowing people to cast extra
votes and poll workers to alter ballots undetected.
Others dismiss such warnings as paranoid conspiracy theories.
"It's fear-mongering by a few people who want to go back to the
19th century-way of voting," Adams County Clerk and Recorder Carol
Techies and election bureaucrats are facing off in Denver this
week at the annual meeting of the International Association of
Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials and Treasurers, where voting
security is a popular topic of discussion.
The scientists have convened a separate, side conference in hopes
of convincing those who control the purse strings in local
governments to hold off buying billions of dollars in computerized
voting equipment until the federal government sets clear and tough
standards to ensure their security.
In Colorado, Secretary of State Donetta Davidson's office is
heeding their advice by asking Washington for a two-year extension
to the 2004 deadline set out in the federal Help America Vote Act
"There's a sense of urgency about complying with the federal
mandate. But we're urging counties not to rush into buying expensive
equipment before it's proven in the interest of voter integrity,"
said spokeswoman Lisa Doran.
In response to Florida's 2000 voting debacle, Congress in 2002
passed the voting act to replace archaic punch-card election systems
and generally improve voter accessibility nationwide.
Five Colorado counties - Boulder, Jefferson, Mesa, Montrose and
Pitkin - are replacing punch-card systems such as those in Florida
that made hanging and dangling chads (not fully punched holes in
paper ballots) the subject of national headlines.
Statewide, all 64 counties are required to install at least one
electronic voting machine in every precinct by 2004. That's at least
3,000 machines that must be purchased within the next several
months, unless the feds grant Davidson's request for an
"There's such a rush ... to buy this stuff, but people don't have
their acts together," said Dill, who calls HAVA a "collection of
back-room deals" that doesn't address real security issues. He
derides the law for not requiring paper receipts that ensure voters
their ballots are counted exactly as they're cast.
"Why are we putting our democracy on computers that aren't ready
to go?" added Rebecca Mercuri, a computer science professor at Bryn
Mawr College and an expert on electronic voting.
Meantime, the federal money promised the Centennial State for
such expenses has dwindled from $52 million to $35 million. Of that,
Davidson's office has received only $7.2 million. The feds also have
taken much longer than expected setting technical standards to guide
states and counties in purchasing machines that cost thousands of
dollars a pop.
"The funds aren't there. The standards aren't there," Doran said.
"We've advised counties not to buy machinery that there's no
Though controversy over those standards has been brewing for
years, it heated up last week with news that the software that runs
many computerized voting machines has serious flaws that would allow
voters to cast extra votes and poll workers to tamper with ballots
A team at Johns Hopkins University's Information Security
Institute examined software from the Ohio-based Diebold Election
Systems, which has about 33,000 voting machines in use throughout
the nation. The software could be manipulated and the outcome
changed by anyone with $100 worth of computer equipment, researchers
According to Diebold executives, most Colorado counties use that
company's optical-scan units, which help tally paper ballots. Those
units are not the subject of controversy. Instead, one of the
company's other machines, the AcuVoteTS touch-screen machine, is at
issue in the Hopkins study. Diebold executives say there are about
120 AcuVoteTS units in Colorado - including more than 100 in El Paso
County, 10 in Weld County and six in Broomfield.
Diebold Election Systems President Tom Swidarski defended his
technology Tuesday as the safest, "most advanced out there." He
dismissed the Hopkins study as a "homework assignment" by a bunch of
graduate students aimed as a "misguided," personal attack" on his
Swidarski called computer science election watchdogs such as
those gathered in Denver this week "fringe organizations" "without
much real practical knowledge of the election process."
Others agree that scientists warnings are overblown.
"I have security in my office. It's not like I let any Tom, Dick
and Harry into my alarmed, camera-ed and locked server room," said
Snyder, who uses 220 Diebold optical scanners for elections in Adams
Doran added that there have been no reports of tampering or
defrauding computerized election systems in Colorado.
"Nobody has brought any evidence to us so we're not considering
it a problem," she said.
Executives with voting technology companies are hawking their
wares at this week's conference at Denver's Adam's Mark Hotel, each
plugging their product as the safest from tampering and fraud and
booking as many private lunches and dinners with election officials
as they could.
"Now there's a big hubbub that the emperor has no clothes," said
Jim Adler, chief executive of VoteHere, a voting software company.
"The danger here is that Americans don't need another excuse not to
Watchdogs grumbled about the aggressive sales techniques and
close ties between voting machine companies and the officials
they're trying to woo. In Colorado, for example, the executive
director of the Denver Election Commission resigned in 1998 to work
for Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment, Inc., a company that received
$6.6 million in contracts from his own department.
"There's quite a cozy relationship between election officials and
salesmen," Dill said.