In the wake of last week’s revelation about failures in the national testing of electronic voting machines, a citizens’ advocacy group is urging the Iowa General Assembly to legislate upgrades to state elections procedures. Iowans for Voting Integrity wants to require the use of paper ballots, routine manual audits (hand counting) of ballots in randomly selected precincts, a more rigorous, state-based system of testing vote tabulation software, and other measures to strengthen the transparency and integrity of elections.
All of Iowa’s votes are now counted by electronic machines, whether they are cast on a paper ballot and then scanned, or recorded directly by a touchscreen machine. Over the past year, numerous academic studies and independent security reports have warned that elections on these machines are at high risk of being compromised, either unintentionally or by deliberate, malicious design.
In the latest of such disclosures, the New York Times reported on Jan. 4 that Ciber, Inc., one of three federally-certified “independent testing authorities” charged with approving electronic voting systems, has been temporarily barred from further work due to failure to document its testing of voting software. Ciber has done testing on all of the voting equipment Iowa uses. Systems produced by Diebold Election Systems, used in over 70 Iowa counties and tested by Ciber, have in the last 3 years been discovered to have a number of distinct and serious security flaws, which computer scientists believe should have been discovered during the testing process.
Iowans for Voting Integrity (IVI) calls for the reports of these testing companies to be placed in the public domain, where citizens and experts can examine them. IVI also calls for the state to reform its Board of Examiners of voting machines to include a panel of real experts in computer technology. The current board consists of three people: two county auditors of opposing parties and one person who is required to have some training in computer operations.
The call for paper ballots comes at a time when use of touchscreen machines has been widespread in the state. Nineteen of Iowa’s 99 counties use only touchscreens, and an additional 58 counties use both touchscreens and paper ballots at each polling place. A survey by IVI found that statewide, about one-fourth of voters cast their votes on the paperless electronic machines in the June 2006 primary election. Data on the November election are not yet available.
Most of these touchscreen voting machines do not produce a paper record that voters can inspect as evidence that their votes were recorded correctly. And even if they do, current state regulations prohibit using such records in any recount. This may be because the current generation of paper record printers use poor quality, continuous roll thermal paper, making hand audits and recounts difficult. These printers are also difficult to read, and subject to paper jams, smears, and other problems.
The end result is that “elections conducted on these touchscreen machines are not verifiable,” says Sean Flaherty, Co-Chair of IVI. “If an undiscovered programming error causes votes to be recorded incorrectly, there is no way to go back after the election and determine what the voter intended.”
The November 2006 election saw numerous problems with the use of touchscreens. Voters in a number of states, including Florida, Texas, South Carolina, and Illinois, reported “vote switching,” that is, the votes displaying on the verification screen did not match the votes they cast, and many reported difficulty correcting their votes.
In a highly suspicious election result using touchscreens, 18,000 voters in Sarasota Co., Florida supposedly did not choose a candidate for U.S. Representative, a hotly contested election. This was over 13% of the total cast, and was wildly disproportionate to the number of “undervotes” for the same race in adjoining counties. Furthermore, a number of Sarasota voters who voted early on these touchscreens reported that they had selected the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Representative, but then saw no vote registered on the summary screen. The race was decided by a margin of 369 votes, with Republican Vern Buchanan victorious. Democratic candidate Christine Jennings is contesting the election, and lawsuits by voters of both parties, are now making their way through the courts.
Iowans for Voting Integrity believes that paper ballots, marked either by the voter with a pen or pencil, or by a ballot marking device, are the best solution. The paper ballots can then be counted by an optical ballot scanner.
Of equal importance to paper ballots is a system of routine random hand audits as a check on the accuracy of the scanner results. In 2006, the Brennan Center for Justice of New York University issued a report, “The Machinery of Democracy, “ which examined the vulnerabilities of current voting systems and the best ways to secure them. Without routine hand audits, the report states, paper ballots “are of questionable security value.”
The Brennan Center task force members included Professor Douglas Jones of the University of Iowa, Dr. David Jefferson of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Howard Schmidt, former chief security officer of the Microsoft Corporation and former cyber security adviser to President George W. Bush.
“Accuracy and transparency in the casting and counting of ballots is at the basis of our democracy,” says Flaherty. “We cannot afford NOT to put in place secure systems and procedures to guard against unintended error or malicious tampering with our elections.” He urges the public to sign a petition supporting these goals.
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