The Vexations Of Voting Machines


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    The experience, Wertheimer says, convinced him that the souls of these new machines were far too corruptible. His team found it possible to vote more than once, physically break into the machines by picking their locks and alter vote totals by dialing into the Diebold server used to relay tallies from precincts to state election officials. The computers that were used to receive results from the precincts had not been given basic security upgrades, leaving them vulnerable to viruses like the notorious Blaster worm. "It's not as if they didn't think enough about security," says Wertheimer. "It's as if they didn't think about it at all." Before the primary, Maryland didn't have time to do much more than alter some passwords and attach to the machines antitamper tape that changes color if someone physically tries to break into them. Officials have required other improvements since then.

    In Ohio the debate over evoting has become partisan. Republican secretary of state J. Kenneth Blackwell ordered each county to pick a state-approved vendor and begin modernizing equipment. Democrats accuse Blackwell of trying to promote his candidacy for Governor by insisting on the changes even as a state legislative committee was studying the machines' reliability. The panel recommended a few weeks ago that the state void all voting-machine contracts and require a newer technology that provides a paper trail of votes cast. Blackwell's spokesman called the committee's move "outrageous and foolish."

    California's bad experiences in the March primaries and in last year's gubernatorial recall election are what led secretary of state Shelley to distrust e-voting. In March more than a third of the precincts in San Diego County opened late because the new machines didn't fire up properly, leading many voters to leave in disgust. A study by Diebold of problems with its equipment in Alameda County found that 186 of the 763 encoders used to program the smart cards had failed. As a result of those foul-ups, thousands of voters were disenfranchised in the two counties. Shelley's office concluded in a report released last week that Diebold, the No. 1 provider of evoting machines to California, "jeopardized the outcome" of the March primary.

    Diebold apologized for the California snafus, but that may not be enough. The state advisory panel last week recommended that Shelley ask the attorney general to file both criminal and civil charges against the firm. Diebold's chairman, Walden O'Dell, set the company up for recrimination when he wrote in a fund-raising letter to Ohio Republicans last year that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the President next year." O'Dell, who has raised more than $100,000 for President Bush, said he didn't mean that he would use his machines to cheat in the election. But his statement helped fuel mushrooming conspiracy theories that evoting-machine vendors might precook election counts.

    Congress's belated reaction to the nightmare of 2000 was the Help America Vote Act, which created the Election Assistance Commission. But because of delays naming and confirming its four members, the panel has only just begun working to provide states with standards and guidance for selecting new voting systems. At its first hearing, on May 5, the commission will probably get an earful about one proposed solution to the problems with e-voting — a voter-verified paper trail. Rebecca Mercuri, a computer scientist and Harvard research fellow, came up with the idea of having each machine print a small receipt, viewable through clear plastic, that reflects a voter's choices. If it's correct, the voter hits a button, and the receipt disappears into the machine, available for a recount. Several firms are developing such machines. Nevada, the only state so far to require evoting machines to include voter-verified paper trails by November, expects to install ones made by Sequoia Voting Systems. Missouri, Illinois and California are mandating printed receipts by 2006, and many states are considering similar measures. U.S. Representative Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, is sponsoring legislation to require the printouts nationwide, and comparable bills await action in the Senate.

    But opposition has come from surprising quarters. Some election officials say they are worried about printer jams and other headaches. The toughest resistance comes from disability-rights groups. James Dickson, the vice president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, says electronic machines enfranchise 30 million illiterate, disabled or foreign-language-speaking voters. Requiring a paper trail, even with some technological bells and whistles, he says, would cut out many of those potential voters once again. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights is on Dickson's side. So are top officials of the League of Women Voters, though some local chapters are at odds with headquarters on this.

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