May 3, 2004

Proprietary, paperless e-voting is failing -- and selling

Author: Jay Lyman

Computer security experts are hoping a California election systems panel's recent rejection of embittered voting machine-maker Diebold's touch screen systems, among other legislative attempts and media-covered machine mess-ups, might lead to an embrace of paper backups and open source.

A closer look is on the way in the form of legislative debates and hearings with the Election Assistance Commission in Washington D.C. beginning next month, but computer scientist and voting technology expert Barbara Simons worried that election officials will rubber stamp the proprietary, paperless model and trust in the machine vendors as much as they are asking.

"The hearings with the EAC are already totally biased almost to the point where it's a joke," said Simons, a past president of the Association for Computing Machinery, founder and co-chair of the U.S. Public Policy Committee of ACM and co-author of a report that forced the government's rejection of an experimental, e-voting solution that was proprietary and paperless.

"It has me worried," Simons said. "The EAC is supposed to be an honest broker in this. My hope is that they will be."

Simons also complained that the League of Women Voters -- of which she is a member -- is supporting the dominant voting vendors and compromising the institution's credibility in the process.

So what do companies such as Diebold, Election Systems Software & Services Inc., Accenture and others do to get such broad, engrained support?

"Everything you can imagine, including restrictive secrecy clauses in contracts and huge expenditures on lobbyists, lawyers, and PR firms," said VerifiedVoting.org founder and Stanford University professor David Dill.

He referred to last year's disclosure of a controversial conference call between voting machine company execs and ITAA lobbyist Harris Miller and last month's disclosure by the Oakland Tribune of Diebold's $500,000 per month legal and lobbying campaign.

"And it is routine for 'voter education' funding written into voting machine contracts to be used to fund pro-voting machine propaganda," Dill added.

Diebold spokesperson Dabid Baer declined to address the contract criticisms and defended his company's lobbying efforts.

"We're in a competitive business and we've invested in making sure we're providing the best products at the best price for customers," he said.

He also defended Diebold's touch screen machines and said despite the California panel's recommendation to de-certify Diebold machines and its advisory to the state's attorney general that the company illegally put uncertified software on machines that were used last March, the Diebold paperless touch screen machines worked fine.

VerifiedVoting.org legislative analyst Bob Kibrick, who joined the public in waiting for a decision on the panel recommendation from Secretary of State Kevin Shelley last week, reported alarming findings that not a single Diebold machine used in 17 California counties in March was running state-certified software. While some of those machines had one or two of the other required federal and independent certifications, four of the machines had not been certified at all by any officials, the panel found.

"It's a very serious problem because if the software isn't certified, then you have no idea of actually what it's doing," Kibrick said, adding the issue spans both the nation and e-voting industry. "This is a serious problem and it's not confined to California and it's not confined to Diebold."

Kibrick referred to similar issues of uncertified software installations by Election Systems & Software in Indiana and ongoing touch screen problems in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas and elsewhere as well.

Kibrick, who attended the California panel hearings where Diebold got dumped on, pointed to the same requirements that voting technology experts do to ensure more trustworthy elections: a voter-verifiable paper record and the use of open source software with publicly available code.

Kibrick took the paper ballot requirement further, adding that there should be a mandatory sampling of at least 1-2 percent of the paper ballots to ensure electronic results match up. Lawmakers are also pushing the issue with legislation in the U.S. Senate and in other states that calls for paper ballots, open source and other requirements of electronic voting.

Dill, who reported that California Secretary of State Shellie has required an "accessible voter verified paper audit trail" by 2005 on new machines and by 2006 on all machines, said the paper is definitely being embraced in the state.

"Unfortunately, a whole lot of machines were bought just before Shelley's deadline," Dill said. "Most of these were the Dibold AccuVote-TSX machines, which the Voting Systems Panel proposes to decertify. I approve of that decision because it undoes a previous mistake. The latest news reports propose that new purchases of touch screen machines be banned until they satisfy (certification) requirements, which is also wise."

Dill said his group, among others such as the Open Voting Consortium, are doing their best to counter the lobbying efforts of the big vendors.

"We're doing the best we can, but we have maybe one one-hundredth of the funding and we're not willing to stoop to the same tactics," he said. "We have to believe that the truth will carry the day as it appears to be doing in California."

Dill was referring to the California panel's recommendation to decertify the Diebold AccuVote-TSx machines, the newest purchased in the state and used in four counties last March.

However, Simons worried that the recommendation to decertify only the TSx machines may have been a compromise because so many counties and machines would have been affected if the similar TS machine was also decertified.

Simons also expressed concern that the EAC and similar bodies overseeing the use of electronic voting are not sufficiently staffed by computer science and security experts, who routinely agree on the need for paper printouts and open source.

Avi Rubin, a Johns Hopkins University professor and voting technology expert, said the recent California hearings had shed some light on both the problems of paperless machines and the "hazards of not having open source."

"I also think that the media coverage of the issues has raised awareness," Rubin said. "I don't know the extent to which lawmakers are aware of the problems. I'll be trying to raise their awareness in a couple of upcoming hearings in Washington D.C."

Rubin, who has been critical of vendors keeping their designs and code as trade secrets, said he thinks e-voting is at a crossroads right now.

"Awareness of the security problems of (Direct Recording Electronic) DREs is at an all-time high," Rubin said. "At the same time, states are aggressively buying these machines. Time is getting short because the election is coming up November 2."

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