Effort afoot to address e-voting at convention

Effort afoot to address e-voting at convention

A Democratic congresswoman from President George W. Bush's home state plans to put the issue of electronic voting security and integrity in the spotlight at this week's Democratic National Convention.

Although she isn't scheduled to speak at the convention in Boston, Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson will call on prominent Democrats to help raise voter awareness about the challenges facing the security, reliability and integrity of electronic voting systems, a spokesman for her office said.

"I can't imagine it not being an issue at the convention. But if it's not, Rep. Johnson certainly plans to make it one," said John B. Townsend, a spokesman for the congresswoman.

However, speaking on condition of anonymity, an IT industry source who met last week with members of Sen. John Kerry's staff said the Kerry campaign is considering a move to pull back from the position taken by the Democratic National Committee and Howard Dean's Democracy for America organization. Dean and the DNC have endorsed the voter-verifiable paper ballot requirement for e-voting systems -- something that only the state of Nevada has planned for November. According to the official, the Kerry campaign is considering support for verification of the final vote tally through some form of encryption.

For many Democrats, however, the issue boils down to a Republican-controlled Congress that has refused to force voting-system vendors to open their software to inspection and verification.

"The Republicans have an interest in not doing anything about electronic voting security," said Townsend.

But some analysts, along with liberal organizations, said that although security of the systems and the integrity of the software used are real concerns, the rhetoric surrounding the debate could actually hurt voter turnout. And that could backfire on the Democrats.

"We're worried about voters being scared off," said Tanya Clay, director of public policy at Washington-based People for the American Way. "It's one thing to push for security in all voting machines, but it's another thing to scare people into thinking it's useless for them to go and vote. We can't allow this issue to hijack the election."

Damage control

But the e-voting security debate may have already damaged the trust of some Americans who will vote electronically this November. One reason for that is the appearance of a possible conflict of interest stemming in part from a comment made publicly last August by Diebold Election Systems CEO Walden O'Dell that he was "committed" to delivering Ohio's electoral votes to President George W. Bush.

In addition, Federal Election Commission records reviewed by Computerworld show that between 1997 and 2003, O'Dell contributed US$10,465 of his own money to Republican campaigns.

David Bear, a spokesman for Diebold, said O'Dell immediately expressed regret for having made the comment and has curtailed all personal political activity. Bear also noted that Diebold has since introduced a company policy banning employees from participating in the political process beyond voting.

In another case, Aldo Tesi, CEO of Omaha-based Election Systems & Software Inc., contributed $1,200 to Republican candidates in 1999 through the Commercial Federal Bank political action committee.

Meghan McCormick, a spokeswoman for ES&S, said the PAC in question makes contributions to candidates of both parties and noted that Tesi made the contribution as a member of the board of Commercial Federal Bank and not on behalf of ES&S.

"We understand and appreciate the serious responsibility we have in the democratic process," McCormick said. "ES&S company policy prohibits associates from making political contributions for any candidate or political party for or on behalf of the company."

Still, such activity fuels the debate about the integrity and security of e-voting systems, Clay insisted. "You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to connect the dots on this issue," she said.

Clay also cited the lengthy process involved in Congress passing the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which provided $3.86 billion to replace punch card and lever-based systems with new touch-screen systems.

"It took two years to pass HAVA, despite the fiasco of 2000," said Clay, referring to voting system malfunctions in the last presidential election.

"There were a lot of people who didn't want that bill because they had nothing to gain from it," she said. "Why would you want to change an election process that has put you in office? And that's what's happening with electronic voting machines."

Avi Rubin, the Johns Hopkins University computer science professor at the center of the debate over e-voting security, last week told members of a House subcommittee that it would be "irresponsible" to move forward with the November election without addressing the legitimate security problems identified to date. Townsend said Johnson shares that view.

"Voting is not like other applications," Rubin said in an interview. "There is no reason why anyone should trust a vendor."

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