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Election Security 2006 PDF  | Print |  Email
By Steven Hill, New America Foundation   
June 16, 2006
Steven Hill is director of the Political Reform Program of the  New America Foundation. This article, excerpted from the author’s new book, 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy appeared on on June 5, 2006, the day before the California primary election. Part I of a two-part series. Part II "Recipe For A Fair Election" outlines a forward-looking agenda for how to secure the vote in the United States. the articles are reposted here with permission of the author.


Will your vote count on Tuesday? As we head into another election season—with control of Congress potentially up for grabs—ongoing concerns about voting equipment and election administration continue to worry fair elections advocates. Recent headlines have added to previous fears, but there are also signs that effective advocacy is paying off. 
Last month, The New York Times and other news media reported on a new security glitch uncovered in election equipment manufacturer Diebold Election System’s ATM-like touch-screen voting machines. Voting technology experts have called it the "worst security flaw ever"—any person with basic knowledge and a minute or two of access to a Diebold touch screen could load virtually any software into the machine and disable it, redistribute votes or alter its performance in myriad ways without being detected.
"This [security flaw] is worse than any of the others I've seen. It's more fundamental," said Douglas Jones, a University of Iowa computer scientist and veteran voting system examiner for the state of Iowa. "In the other ones, we've been arguing about the security of the locks on the front door. Now we find that there's no back door.”
Incredibly, media reports withheld some details of the vulnerability at the request of elections officials and scientists, partly because exploiting the security hole is so easy that providing details would give a roadmap to a potential hacker.

Elections officials in several states scrambled to limit the risk. In Pennsylvania, respected state elections chief Michael Shamos, previously a supporter of touch-screen voting, ordered the sequestering of all Diebold touch-screens. California and other states invoked emergency procedures. Meanwhile, problems with voting equipment sold by Diebold's main competitors, Sequoia Voting Systems and Election Systems and Software, popped up in numerous states, including Oregon, Texas, Colorado, Illinois, Florida, New Jersey, Washington and New Mexico.
Election Data Services estimates that, while some states are still in the process of buying voting equipment, touch-screen machines will be used by 34 percent of counties in 2006, up from 10 percent in 2000. But only seven states will use devices that print a paper receipt of electronic votes from touch-screen machines—known as a “voter verified paper audit trail” or VVPAT—with more than a dozen states still pushing legislation to require paper records. This trend is extremely worrying to election security advocates. Some cause for comfort is that 50.2 percent of counties will use optical-scan machines that read hand-marked paper ballots (up from 41 percent in the 2000 election), since at least optical scan systems have a VVPAT—a paper ballot that was marked with a pen before being scanned by the machine.
Traditional paper ballots marked by pen and counted by hand, which some touch-screen opponents nostalgically hearken back to, will account for only 5.7 percent of counties in 2006, down from 11.7 percent of counties six years ago. But on the positive side, use of punch-card voting equipment, which was badly discredited during the 2000 presidential vote count in Florida, has declined from 18 percent of counties in 2000 to just under 4 percent.
Two steps forward, one step back? It’s hard to say whether we are making progress or not, mostly because the powers-that-be appear uncertain about what actually represents progress. This was painfully obvious at the Voting Systems Testing Summit in November 2005, which marked the first time that representatives from all the different camps involved with or concerned about election administration—top federal regulators, vendors, testing laboratories, state and local election administrators, computer scientists and fair elections advocates—came together in one place. Most striking was that no one could articulate a comprehensive inventory of the many problems, much less a blueprint for the solutions. Instead, there was a lot of finger-pointing and excuses.
At the summit, one expert made the staggering claim—which no one bothered to dispute —that the U.S. provides more security, testing, and oversight of slot machines and the gaming industry than to our nation's voting equipment or election administration. Clearly, the biggest threat to the integrity of our elections is that no one seems to be steering the ship. There is no central brain or team that has a handle on all aspects, developing best practices or a roadmap that states and counties can follow. Tragically, while Congress has appropriated $3 billion for buying new voting equipment, the money is arriving before the necessary standards to ensure that it isn’t wasted are in place. This hardly resembles the world’s greatest democracy in action.
Looking at the bigger picture it’s clear that the entire regimen of public-private infrastructure for running elections in the United States, where for-profit vendors sell proprietary equipment to counties and states in a quasi-regulated market, is going through yet another round of convulsions. It's like watching an antiquated bridge creaking and groaning under the strain of traffic, wondering when it will give way next. Any sensible person favoring the fairness and integrity of our elections should be concerned. Yet that concern also must be kept in perspective lest it spiral into a paralyzing paranoia.
There are a number of positives to point to in an admittedly chaotic situation. Election security activists are more mobilized than ever and they are having an impact in a myriad of ways. They have raised the profile of these issues to the point of a national crisis. Their efforts, once considered the actions of fanatical gadflies, are being increasingly cited and even joined by respected election bureaucrats like Pennsylvania’s Michael Shamos. Former President Jimmy Carter and Secretary of State James A. Baker III—yes, that James Baker, the Bush family's consigliore in the disputed 2000 presidential election—were co-chairs of the bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform which warned in their 2005 final report that “software can be modified maliciously before being installed into individual voting machines. There is no reason to trust insiders in the election industry any more than in other industries.”
Advocates’ increased credibility has resulted in real action, with two governors deciding to take matters into their own hands. New Mexico's Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson pushed through legislation mandating paper ballots throughout the state. Maryland's Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich in February called for change after a Johns Hopkins University study found Diebold’s software was open to attacks from hackers, followed by seeing a 10-fold jump in the cost of maintaining and storing the sensitive electronic machines.
In another sign of progress, election security advocates led by Voter Action, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, have found the necessary resources to begin filing lawsuits as a way to block state and election officials' efforts to use touch-screen equipment. So far, lawsuits in nine states have been filed, with the embattled terrain becoming tenser and increasingly high-stakes. Diebold lawyers are not taking this lying down. They have retaliated against whistleblower Stephen Heller, pressuring law enforcement officials in Los Angeles to send him to jail for allegedly leaking documents exposing that Diebold was using illegal, uncertified software in their California voting machines.
As a result of all this furious activity, a consensus is emerging from top to bottom that the system is broken, even if there is not yet a consensus about what to do about it. But increasingly even the more mainstream experts acknowledge that for the 2006 election, the creaky bridge continues on a shaky foundation.
Heading into the 2006 election, fair election advocates need to remain vigilant, particularly in the handful of close races where a swing of a small number of votes could change an election outcome. Longer term, activists must turn their efforts to a more visionary agenda that will ensure fair, free, safe and secure elections in the 21st century.
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