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Electronic Voting Outcome: Too Close to Call

With the presidential election less than 100 days away, conflicts over high-tech voting machines remain unsettlingly unresolved.
July 27, 2004

Its July 27. Do you know how youre going to vote in the presidential election?

Not whom youll vote for, but how, exactly, youll cast your ballot? As the Democrats get their convention on this week in Boston, residents of Ohio and election officials in counties across the country are still working out some of the details.

Just last week, in fact, Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell issued the findings of the second round of testing his committee undertook to examine the security capabilities of  electronic voting machines made by Diebold. The first round, which began last December, found 57 potential vulnerabilities that needed to be addressed. Of the four vendors whose machines were tested, Diebold was the only one to resubmit and try to resolve all of these problems. Not all the issues were resolved to Blackwell’s satisfaction. And based on these findings, Blackwell halted Ohio’s deployment of electronic voting machines.

As in seemingly all things related to this years elections, the battle over electronic voting machines is now hitting a fevered pitch across the country. Heres a small sampler of electronic voting events of the weeks just past and just ahead: On July 13, citizens around the country marched in a protest titled The Computer Ate My Vote. Congress is expected to convene a hearing before the end of the month to examine some of the security concerns surrounding electronic voting. And about a month ago, leading computer voting security specialists put together a training package and sent it to all the states that are now using or considering electronic voting machines, offering to help them test the security of their systems. Not a single state has responded, says Michael Wertheimer, director of RABA Technologies, a computer security consulting firm that assisted in the effort.

With fewer than 100 days to go before the general election, its clear that states electronic voting plans are still in flux.

One flashpoint is Maryland. The state is using Diebold machines in almost all of its counties despite questions raised by security experts and a security firm that the state commissioned to study its system in January. (One of the largest counties, Baltimore, is using an older system, but will upgrade to Diebold in 2006). Wertheimer studied Marylands electronic voting system in January and found numerous concerns. He is not satisfied with the states response to his companys findings. Maryland has disregarded in large measure our recommendations, even though our study was what spurred Ohio and California to look more carefully at Diebold and electronic voting in general and to put together a more stringent security requirement, he says. The Maryland board of election simply doesnt want to believe the system has problems.

Donna Duncan, director of the election management division of the Maryland State Board of Elections, declined to respond directly to Wertheimers claims. Instead, she listed the numerous methods by which the states machines are tested, adding, We have confidence in the accuracy and reliability of the equipment.

Maryland opted for a system that doesnt include a paper-based voter verification component, an omission some security experts consider a big mistake. The only state so far to implement a paper-based voter verification system is Nevada, according to Kim Brace, president of Election Data Services, a political consulting firm that specialized in election-related services. But the roughly 99.5 percent of U.S. voters who live elsewhere will have no such backup system in place.

So what can voters do if their voting place uses electronic voting machines? The public can get involved, says Brace, who encourages citizens to volunteer to help at the polls. As for insuring the veracity of individual votes, Brace offers up this advice: Make sure you double check your vote.

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