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Chads Out, but Controversy Remains

Times Staff Writer

As Californians go to the polls today, those casting ballots in 14 counties, home to 43% of the state’s 15.1 million registered voters, will use electronic machines -- part of a massive national experiment in new technology that pits the hope of fewer errors against the fear of election-night computer hacking.

Supporters, who include many of the state’s registrars, say the new systems promise paperless elections that are cheaper to administer, faster to tally and free of the paper chads that gained infamy in the last presidential election.

Touch screens prompt voters to make selections in all races and let them review their choices, reducing the chance that voters inadvertently will skip a race. The machines also display ballots in multiple languages. Audio units allow blind voters to cast ballots without assistance. Centralized databases allow voters to go to any polling place in their county and cast local ballots.

But some computer scientists and election watchdog groups have raised questions about the security of electronic voting. They contend that the machines are vulnerable to software bugs or “malicious” code and lack the simple guarantee of a paper ballot, which can be recounted and examined by hand.

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They point to surprising election results, such as former Democratic Sen. Max Cleland’s upset defeat in Georgia’s 2002 senatorial race, and question recounts, such as one in January of this year in which 134 blank electronic ballots were cast in a tightly contested race for a Florida state House seat.

In Internet chat groups, electronic voting machines have become the fulcrum of sometimes elaborate conspiracy theories, which lack conclusive evidence, but not ardor, in their insistence that the systems threaten American democracy. But even those who don’t go that far urge caution.

“Once a ballot is cast, you can’t pull it back out,” said David Jefferson, a computer scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who sat on voting technology task forces in California and at the federal level. “After the fact, you cannot recover from problems. It’s not like a financial system, where you can take reasonable risks; in voting, you just can’t.”

In January, computer security experts hired by the Maryland Legislature to test that state’s new electronic voting machines reported that they had been able to hack into the system. The team proposed taking short-term measures to secure the machines for use in today’s election, but also recommended that some sort of backup, such as a paper trail, be used in the future.

Such concerns have prompted some election authorities, including California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, to add security measures to the electronic voting process. And that has left local officials struggling to defend their systems.

Some experts say that election officials, in a hurry to avoid repeating Florida’s agonizing voting problems, rushed into buying electronic voting machines before the technology was ready.

After 2000, “the punch cards in Florida were the target, so the major concern was to get rid of them,” said Richard Smolka, a professor emeritus of political science at American University in Washington, D.C., who is involved in election reform efforts. “But the standards weren’t there to replace them. They clearly put the cart before the horse.”

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which appropriated $3.9 billion for election reform. A sizable chunk of that was set aside for replacing antiquated voting equipment. State governments provided additional financing; in California that year, voters passed Proposition 41, a $200-million bond measure reserved for upgrading voting systems.

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The suddenly available money represented a bonanza in a normally staid industry whose base, according to Caltech economist Thomas Palfrey, is smaller than that of the domestic lawnmower market.

Vendors across America aggressively courted voter registrars, who mostly welcomed the technology. From 2000 to 2002, the number of counties operating some kind of electronic system nearly doubled, from 309 to 547, according to Election Data Services, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C.

By November, about 50 million people nationwide will be able to vote electronically, Election Data Services says.

“The registrars were itching to have the ... money, and they wanted to join the electronic revolution like everyone else,” Jefferson said. “I don’t begrudge them that, but it made them grasp at this brass ring of clean, chadless elections.”

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Unlike paper-based systems, with their shuffle of ballot cards, pens or styluses and bulky ballot boxes, electronic systems are straightforward. Voters activate the machines with “smart cards” and navigate their ballots by touching screen displays, tapping keys or spinning selector wheels. Choices are saved to memory cards sealed in the machines.

After the polls close, those cards are removed and delivered -- like ballot boxes -- to election officials. In some places, the cards also are run through tabulators at the precinct to generate early, unofficial results.

But skeptics have raised a series of questions: What if someone produced counterfeit activator cards? What if the tiny memory-card “ballot boxes” got lost, stolen or switched? What if the power went out on election day?

Registrars responded by establishing polling-place procedures to protect the memory cards, and vendors included backup batteries in machines to answer functional concerns.

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The same kinds of questions were raised in the late 1960s, when computerized tabulation machines were first used to tally paper ballots. “It’s all pretty much the same argument,” Smolka said. “But in this case, there’s the additional argument that, with the punch cards, at least you still had something physical to count.”

That lack of any paper trail has become the central concern in the argument over electronic machines. Early last year, David Dill, a computer scientist at Stanford University, issued a letter, signed by 300 colleagues across the country, protesting Santa Clara County’s plan to buy an electronic voting system without printed backup of the digital record.

Dill and others said they supported electronic voting but worried that the absence of a paper-based record left the machines vulnerable to “Trojan horse” computer codes. Such codes are mini-programs that programmers could conceal in election software to systematically -- and undetectably -- alter vote tallies.

For example, a machine could be coded to shift votes for one party’s candidate to another party’s candidate, bypassing logic and accuracy tests while stealthily skewing vote totals. Because ballots are secret and anonymous -- unlike, say, purchases made over the Internet -- it would be impossible to prove that any switch had occurred after a voter left the booth.

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Experts disagree on how likely it would be that individual programmers would want to set a machine to throw elections in advance, without knowing about the races that would be affected by the program, and on how undetectable such a Trojan horse code would be.

“There are things that are scary that don’t happen,” said Ted Selker, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of computing who worked on a 2001 joint Caltech-MIT report on electronic voting, which pointed out some security concerns. “And the versions of the software have been such that somebody with nefarious goals would be as confused as the rest of us if they tried.”

But Jefferson, of the Lawrence Livermore lab, said that just underscores the depth of the problem.

“The vendors don’t understand computer security either,” he said, explaining that most election software is based on a skeletal Windows program that can be customized for a variety of transactions. “They treated it like an ordinary IT application, because it looks like one, but they had no clue about what it takes to build a secure system that could deal with the peculiar requirements of an election system.”

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Voter registrars have responded angrily to the calls for paper trails, which add technical complexity and maintenance problems to voting systems and could raise costs as much as 10%. Such systems turn the machines “into electronic pencils,” said Scott Konopasek, the San Bernardino County registrar, who recently adopted a touch-screen system. “It makes no sense.”

Selker, who supports the theory behind an audit trail, agreed that paper is the wrong way to go. He lists paperless ways to make backup records that include magnetic-tape encoding, miniature video cameras, and flash memory storage of the screen “pages” in the order they are viewed.

Paper, however, is widely viewed as the most immediate solution. In November, after a California state task force on touch-screen electronic voting security ended its work amid bitter disagreement over whether electronic machines should print paper receipts of vote records, Shelley ordered that, by 2006, all electronic machines must produce paper records that can be reviewed by voters before ballots are cast.

Other states, including Nevada, followed suit, and a flurry of bills with similar requirements appeared in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

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In addition, Shelley introduced a monitoring program for today’s primary: Before any voting begins, officials from the secretary of state’s office and paid consultants will remove several election-ready voting machines from nine pre-selected counties to test for accuracy.

California’s registrars responded angrily to the directives, arguing that only one auxiliary printing system is currently on the market, though all the large vendors have prototypes.

Many also said the shifting standards and requirements ultimately would turn counties away from electronic voting systems altogether.

Last month, Conny B. McCormack, the Los Angeles County registrar, recommended to the Board of Supervisors that it delay a $100-million contract for electronic voting that was planned for this spring and instead extend the life of the interim InkaVote system, which uses paper ballots that voters mark with felt-tipped pens.

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“The issue of voting systems has gotten very politicized in the last year,” said R. Michael Alvarez, a Caltech political scientist who worked with Selker on the 2001 electronic voting study.

“The overriding issue now,” Alvarez said, “is that there’s an enormous amount of uncertainty election administrators have about what technological change is happening and what’s going to be permitted under the law, and it’s not entirely clear that we’re going to have the technology to meet the requirements that have been put out there.”


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