Will Your Vote Count in 2006?


Richard Moore

Original source URL:


Will Your Vote Count in 2006?

'When you're using a paperless voting system, there is no security,' says 
Stanford's David Dill.

By Steven Levy

May 29, 2006 issue - Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the 
voting booth, here comes more disturbing news about the trustworthiness of 
electronic touchscreen ballot machines. Earlier this month a report by Finnish 
security expert Harri Hursti analyzed Diebold voting machines for an 
organization called Black Box Voting. Hursti found unheralded vulnerabilities in
the machines that are currently entrusted to faithfully record the votes of 
millions of Americans.

How bad are the problems? Experts are calling them the most serious 
voting-machine flaws ever documented. Basically the trouble stems from the ease 
with which the machine's software can be altered. It requires only a few minutes
of pre-election access to a Diebold machine to open the machine and insert a PC 
card that, if it contained malicious code, could reprogram the machine to give 
control to the violator. The machine could go dead on Election Day or throw 
votes to the wrong candidate. Worse, it's even possible for such 
ballot-tampering software to trick authorized technicians into thinking that 
everything is working fine, an illusion you couldn't pull off with 
pre-electronic systems. "If Diebold had set out to build a system as insecure as
they possibly could, this would be it," says Avi Rubin, a Johns Hopkins 
University computer-science professor and elections-security expert.

Diebold Election Systems spokesperson David Bear says Hursti's findings do not 
represent a fatal vulnerability in Diebold technology, but simply note the 
presence of a feature that allows access to authorized technicians to 
periodically update the software. If it so happens that someone not supposed to 
use the machine‹or an election official who wants to put his or her thumb on the
scale of democracy‹takes advantage of this fast track to fraud, that's not 
Diebold's problem. "[Our critics are] throwing out a 'what if' that's premised 
on a basis of an evil, nefarious person breaking the law," says Bear.

Those familiar with the actual election process‹by and large run by honest 
people but historically subject to partisan politicking, dirty tricks and sloppy
practices‹are less sanguine. "It gives me a bit of alarm that the voting systems
are subject to tampering and errors," says Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay, 
who worries that machines in his own St. Louis district might be affected by 
this vulnerability. (In Maryland and Georgia, all the machines are Diebold's.)

The Diebold security gap is only the most vivid example of the reality that no 
electronic voting system can be 100 percent safe or reliable. That's the reason 
behind an initiative to augment these systems, adding a paper receipt that 
voters can check to make sure it conforms with their choices. The receipt is 
retained at the polling place so a physical count can be conducted. "When you're
using a paperless voting system, there is no security," says David Dill, a 
Stanford professor who founded the election-reform organization Verified Voting.

To their credit, 26 states have taken action to implement paper trails. But the 
U.S. Congress has yet to pass legislation introduced last year by Rep. Rush 
Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, that would extend this protection nationwide. Holt
says his bill is slowly gaining support. "The voters are saying that every vote 
should count, and the only way to do this is by verified audit trails," he says.
But even an optimistic scenario for passage would challenge his goal of 
mandatory paper receipts for November's elections. In other words, it's unlikely
that every voter using an electronic voting device in 2006 will know for sure 
that his or her vote will be reflected in the actual totals. Six years after the
2000 electoral debacle, how can this be?

© 2006 MSNBC.com
URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12888600/site/newsweek/

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