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Electronic voting systems pass their big test -- maybe

Electronic voting systems pass their big test -- maybe

Electronic voting systems avoided the virtual meltdown that some people had predicted during the US election. But critics said the technology still has significant shortcomings that raise questions about the validity of the results tabulated by the machines.

Electronic voting systems avoided the virtual meltdown that some people had predicted during the US election. But critics said the technology still has significant shortcomings that raise questions about the validity of the results tabulated by the machines. Officials in various states said they encountered relatively minor glitches, such as a North Carolina county's inability to account for about 4,500 ballots cast on touch-screen systems. Nonetheless, the apparently largely successful use of the 175,000 or so e-voting systems deployed throughout much of the U.S. led proponents to call the election a validation of the technology.

"Electronic voting machines took an important test on Nov. 2 and passed with flying colors," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, an IT industry lobbying group in Arlington, Va.

Britt Kauffman, president and CEO of Austin-based Hart InterCivic Inc., whose e-Slate touch-screen systems were used in nine states, said all the reports he has seen point to a "relatively smooth Election Day" for the millions of voters who cast electronic ballots.

But voter monitoring groups posted accounts of incidents that they said show the need for nationwide technical and procedural e-voting standards.

The lack of standards and the inability to verify vote tabulations has created a potentially flawed election process, some critics claimed.

"We need some way of assessing what has happened after the fact," said Peter Neumann, principal scientist at SRI International's Computer Science Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif., and chairman of the National Committee for Voting Integrity (NCVI), a Washington-based advocacy group. "It is extremely difficult to determine what happened because there is an absence of accountability and auditing in those machines."

Doug Jones, an NCVI member and an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, said voting "went remarkably smoothly, considering that we had record turnout and considering that it was scrutinized with more intensity then I can remember." But he said little is known about what can go wrong when people use e-voting systems.

"All we can do is compare the number of ballots with the number of votes recorded and wonder, 'Why did people come to the polling place to cast a blank ballot?' " Jones said.

The use of e-voting machines that don't produce a paper record of votes "is the most perplexing thing I've ever seen," said Lillie Coney, NCVI coordinator and a senior policy analyst at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. Part of the problem lies with state and local election officials who aren't savvy IT buyers, Coney contended. "They're relying strictly on what their vendors tell them," she said. "If their vendors tell them it's secure, it's secure."

Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, volunteered as a poll worker in Timonium, Md., last Tuesday. An NCVI member and a critic of the security controls built into e-voting software, Rubin claimed that Diebold Inc. touch-screen systems at the polling place were left unattended overnight on the eve of the election and were configured by two election officials from the same political party.

Rubin said there currently is no way to know if someone has tampered with e-voting ballots. "If you drive without a seat belt, as we did in this election, and you don't crash, that doesn't mean you should conclude that it is safe to drive that way," he said.

Michigan plans to install optical scanning equipment in all 5,300 of its precincts by 2006, said Ken Silfven, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office. Voting on touch-screen systems went smoothly at 23 precincts in a single county this week, Silfven said. But he added that optical scanning is being adopted statewide to standardize voting equipment and address concerns about the need for a paper trail.

On the other hand, South Carolina officials plan to expand the use of iVotronic touch-screen systems from Election Systems & Software Inc. to all of the state's 46 counties beginning next year, said Marci Andino, executive director of the South Carolina State Election Commission. About 5,000 of the machines, which can store images of all electronic ballots in case recounts are ordered, were used in 15 counties this week.

Voters in a handful of precincts had to switch to paper ballots at the start of voting because of mistakes by poll workers that were quickly resolved, Andino said. "None of the problems were from machine failures," she said, adding that the e-voting systems performed "exceptionally well."

Todd R. Weiss and Heather Havenstein contributed to this story.

SIDEBAR

E-voting Snafus Limited in Scope, Severity

Reports of e-voting system malfunctions began trickling into various independent monitoring organizations almost as soon as the polls opened last Tuesday. But state officials characterized most of the problems as small-scale snafus.

One of the most serious confirmed glitches was the case of 4,532 missing votes at a precinct in Carteret County, N.C. Gary Bartlett, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, said Friday that officials were still trying to retrieve the ballots from the storage units of touch-screen systems made by UniLect Corp. in Dublin, Calif.

A total of 7,537 people were listed as having voted at the precinct, but the machines recorded only 3,005 votes. Bartlett said that it wasn't clear why the missing votes weren't accounted for and added that state officials have called on UniLect to "use every possible resource to retrieve those ballots."

The candidates in two unresolved statewide races were within several thousand votes of each other late this week. Bartlett said it was too soon to speculate about what state officials would do if the missing votes in Carteret County can't be retrieved. "It's a big question mark," he said.

Several other states reported less-severe problems. For example, Georgia used Diebold AccuVote-TS touch-screen systems in all of its 159 counties. Only two counties reported problems, according to Cara Hodgson, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state's office. She said that election officials in Twigg and Hancock counties had early-morning difficulties programming the correct ballots into some of their systems.

The encoders built into the balky systems "were still encoded for the primaries, and they hadn't been updated," Hodgson said. She added that the two counties issued provisional paper ballots until the system problems were resolved. Otherwise, the state had a "very smooth" day, she said -- a change from elections in 2002 and last year, in which some Diebold systems locked up, registered "yes" when people voted "no" on ballot questions and displayed the wrong races.

Officials in Louisiana reported "minimal" problems, said Scott Madere, a spokesman for the secretary of state's Elections Office.

Orleans Parish, which includes New Orleans, used 829 AVC Advantage touch-screen devices from Sequoia Voting Systems Inc., and parish officials placed about 30 machine-related service calls on Tuesday, Madere said.

Twenty-four of the calls were for problems that required minor repairs, while the other six led to machines being replaced. But three of the replaced systems were inadvertently turned off by poll workers and couldn't be restarted, Madere said. The other three had technical problems that were "bad enough to pull (them) off-line," he said, but he added that parish officials were able to retrieve all the ballots cast on those systems.

In Ohio, there were no apparent problems in the seven of the state's 88 counties that use touch-screen systems, according to James Lee, a spokesman for the secretary of state's office.

Officials in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, Kentucky and Iowa also said that they hadn't received reports of problems with touch-screen systems or other automated voting machines. However, Dallas County in Iowa opted not to use its e-voting systems out of fear of potential malfunctions, said Anthony Carroll, voter outreach coordinator in the secretary of state's office.

-- Matt Hamblen, Heather Havenstein, Linda Rosencrance, Marc L. Songini, Dan Verton and Todd R. Weiss contributed to this report.-- Computerworld (US)

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