May 6, 2004

New federal commission begins examining e-voting issues

Author: Thom Wysong

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- With TV cameras and a standing-room-only crowd watching, the newly-formed U.S. Election Assistance Commission held its first public hearing Wednesday and agreed to look closely at using open source software to do the job in the future.

Created by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), the EAC has been charged with finding solutions to many of the problems that surfaced in the November 2000 U.S. election, in which President Bush defeated Al Gore by a mere few thousand Florida votes. Yesterday's gathering was the first public hearing convened by the EAC to begin working toward that goal.

The history of electronic voting issues in the U.S. is not new; it dates back to the 1970s. The past year has seen e-voting controversy reappear in a big way, beginning with a grassroots effort that has grown into a full-fledged organization to get Voter Verifiable Audit Trails (VVAT) mandated .

Even though all-electronic VVAT is possible, it has been generally ignored in the media. Instead, the media has consistently focused on more sensational aspects of the controversy -- and on the push to get paper-based VVAT (VVPT) mandated for e-voting machines used in public elections in the U.S..

Covering the issues from several perspectives

To address this issue, the EAC assembled five panels of experts to testify at Wednesday's hearing. The panels covered e-voting from the perspectives of diverse groups: technologists, voting system vendors, election administrators, human/computer interation researchers, and advocacy groups.

Several speakers at the hearing presented the pro-VVPT perspective. The hearing was the first to allow other perspectives to be presented that have been either marginally covered or ignored in the media.

The first points the panels agreed upon is that perfect security is not realistic, and that more transparency is needed in the overall process. William Welsh of election technology vendor Election Systems & Software said: "Nobody buys a safe that can be easily opened, but everyone buys a safe that can be cracked."

Panelist Stephen Berger of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), said: "All the simple problems have been solved. What's left is creating complex compromises from often-times competing requirements."

The notion that there is not enough time to safely implement major changes to the electoral system before the November presidential election was supported by election administrators but not by paper-based-election advocates.

It can take up to nine months to get software certified before an election. Any IT professional who has performed a major upgrade to a very large, distibuted group of computers can imagine the horrors that would arise from trying to do major upgrades to hundreds of thousands of voting systems -- all at the same time, as opposed to using a phased approach to the upgrade.

Open source will play a major role

Commissioner Paul DeGregorio asked the vendors their opinions about using open source software in election machines. Chairman DeForest Soaries added it was so important that "this topic deserves a panel all by itself." The vendors were then asked to return their answers in writing to the committee, due to lack of time at the hearing.

The EAC will form a Technical Guidelines Development Committee within the next month to look into -- among other issues -- open source options. When asked after the hearing if open source software would be investigated further by the EAC, Chairman Soaries emphatically said, "We've got to do it." Several of the commissioners confirmed afterward that one of mandates they would be giving to the technical guidelines committee would be to investigate open source and related concepts. The new committee will be staffed with highly qualified scientists and technical experts, DeGregorio said.

Panelist Avi Rubin was asked during a question-and-answer session if paper-based voting is the only answer to solving the problem. Rubin responded: "In the short term, yes. In the long, long term, we should explore other options."

In closing, Soaries said that "the EAC will be investigating all major voting technologies ... it is only starting with e-voting, and it isn't ending there." The commissioners are expecting to hold public hearings on all major types of voting technologies in use in the U.S. today -- e-voting, optical scanning, and others.

The commission will schedule subsequent public hearings. See the EAC Web site for more information.

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