The Vexations Of Voting Machines


    Jeffrey Liss had finished making his selections on Maryland's Democratic-primary ballot and strolled out of the polling place at Chevy Chase Elementary School on the morning of March 2, Super Tuesday. On the sidewalk, he spied a campaign poster for Senator Barbara Mikulski, who is running for her fourth term. Funny, he thought, he didn't remember voting in the Senate race.

    Liss went back inside to talk to an election official. And another, and another. He was told he must have overlooked the Senate race on the electronic touch-screen voting machine. But Liss, a lawyer, finally persuaded a technician to check the apparatus. Sure enough, it wasn't displaying the whole ballot.

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    According to voter complaints collected by Mikulski, who won in the primary, her race didn't appear on ballots in at least three Maryland counties. As a result of snafus like that, a group of voters in the state last week sued to bar use of the machines in November's balloting. And the people of Maryland are not the only ones having second thoughts about electronic voting, the 21st century technology that was supposed to guarantee an end to elections like 2000's, with its outcome depending on subjective calls about hanging and pregnant chads. After that messy conclusion, election officials in 34 states, from Florida to California, purchased so many e-voting machines that some 50 million people, or more than one-third of registered voters, are expected to use them in November. But because of primary-season problems and a general anxiety over sending votes down an electronic black hole, a backlash has set in. Some voter activists, computer scientists and elected officials have joined a growing movement to either make the systems more accountable or pull the plug entirely. Electronic voting is "a rickety system with poor federal and state oversight," says Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation. "It has produced an endless stream of bad news." In the most dramatic move against the controversial systems, a state advisory panel urged California secretary of state Kevin Shelley to prohibit the use in this fall's election of 16,000 evoting machines that four counties purchased from Ohio manufacturer Diebold Inc. at a cost of $45 million. Shelley is considering a statewide ban, as is the legislature.

    Most critics of e-voting have two complaints. One is that it's not possible to do a true recount with the systems because they produce nothing tangible when a vote is cast; a recount means pressing a button and coming up with the same results. Representative Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, has filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the sleek new systems bought by 15 counties — including those of hanging-chad fame like Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade — are unconstitutional because votes can't truly be retallied there, as they can in the rest of the state.

    The other concern about evoting is that some of the nation's top computer scientists and code crackers believe the systems are too vulnerable to tampering or simple breakdowns. "If you believe, as I do, that voting is one of our critical infrastructures, then you have to defend it like you do your power grid, your water supply," says former National Security Agency code breaker Michael Wertheimer. "That's not happening anywhere." And with a closely split electorate marching toward another presidential showdown, shaky voter confidence in the results could lead to another huge outcry or keep more people from going to the polls. With voter participation at a paltry 51.3% in 2000, Americans hardly need another reason not to vote.

    There are many pluses to the ATM-like machines, most of which are made by three manufacturers. They are easy to use, can provide ballots in many languages and eliminate the problem of voters' choosing more than one candidate in a race. They can also be outfitted to allow disabled people to vote privately for the first time by, for instance, letting blind people use headphones to work through the process. Tests have shown that the machines count votes accurately — when nothing goes wrong.

    But things do. Testing in Maryland, which has adopted a system made by Diebold, began to raise eyebrows. The system's potential vulnerability was first pointed out by Bev Harris, a Seattle-based publicist with a deep interest in voting rights and a deep skepticism about digital-age voting (her book, Black Box Voting, is the movement's gospel). Her discovery: the programming behind Diebold's software was available on an open Internet site, which meant that anyone with a little expertise and access to the voting equipment could subvert it. Harris sent the material to others. Soon computer scientists from Johns Hopkins and Rice universities analyzed it, finding a host of security flaws like the presence of critical passwords in the programming. Mischiefmakers who gained access to the smart cards that voters must insert in the machines, or to the machines' memory cards, could use the passwords to cast bogus votes or change tallies. That prompted the state of Maryland to commission a review by research firm SAIC. It agreed that Diebold's system was "at high risk of compromise." Then, four months ago, a state legislative committee hired Wertheimer, the code cracker, and his crew to "red team" the system — assemble it in a mock polling place and try to screw it up.

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