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Diebold has been aware of security issues in the past. In late 2003, the company sent cease-and-desist letters to various Internet Service Providers after internal company documents, outlining known security flaws, were published online.

The push to replace paper ballots came after the infamous “butterfly ballots” and hanging chads in the 2000 Presidential election, in which the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project estimated there had been up to two million votes not counted due to confusing ballot designs or faulty equipment. Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, which aimed to replace old voting machine with electronic, touch-screen ones. No provisions were made mandating a paper trail.

A year later, Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) sponsored the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act. It would have mandated that electronic voting machines leave a paper trail for independent vote verification. Although the bill had 157 co-sponsors, it has not yet been brought up for a vote.

If enacted, however, this measure still might not be sufficient to safeguard elections. The CITP researchers show that it is possible to hack a voting machine so that its paper receipts agree with a tampered result.

Some companies and researchers have been investigating options for independent verification devices (IVDs)–separate machines that would be attached to each electronic voting device and provide a separate voting record. Roy G. Saltman, a voting technology consultant, recently wrote a paper for the National Institute of Standards and Technology recommending the use of IVD to “improve integrity and public confidence in the correctness of reported outcomes.”

Some IVDs work by capturing the video displayed on the voting machine, so that a separate record exists of which on-screen buttons a voter pushed. Others add another layer of confirming or rejecting voting choices. Another potential system provides a synthesized voice reading to the voter (through headphones) as a confirmation of his or her choices; the voter can hear that votes are being recorded accurately.

“Some of these systems are, in the long run, promising,” says Felten. But he’s skeptical that they’re ready just yet.

“It’s a complex problem,” he says. “An IVD has to get input directly from the voter, and still, you can’t tell what’s happening inside the computer.”

“If you want independent verification,” he says, “you need [an independent] paper trail. That’s the best safeguard right now.”

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Tagged: Computing, election, e-voting, voting machine, voting technology

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