From the Provo
Voting: A Touchy Subject
Saturday, June 10, 2006
By ALAN CHOATE
The Diebold AccuVote TSx stands about 4 feet tall and weighs about 26 pounds. Its 15-inch screen is touch-sensitive at 35 million points and can display ballots in at least nine languages.
Voting is as easy as touching the screen with your finger. ...
If all goes well, at the end of the day there's no need to count punchcards or paper ballots ...
The technology is no longer remarkable to anyone who's used an ATM, ...
But those everyday devices have everyday uses: getting cash, frittering it away, and buying milk. The AccuVote TSx records your vote -- your sacred American vote. For Congress. For county commission. To make or break a tax increase.
And that, perhaps, coupled with the fact that most Utah voters will use the machines for the first time this month, is why some critics are shouting that nothing less than the end of representative democracy is at hand.
"These machines do seem to terrify some people," said Sandy Hoffmann, elections coordinator for Utah County. "I don't see any need for that terror.
The unknown is a factor, but "there is some realism" to the critics' worries, said Phil Windley, an associate professor of computer science at Brigham Young University and former chief information officer for the state of Utah.
Utah County has 1,074 new electronic machines, which replace 1,275 punchcard voting booths. ...
The machines cost about $3,000 each, a bill of a little over $3.2 million for Utah County alone. Federal funds picked up that tab as part of the Help America Vote Act (the response to Florida's 2000 electoral meltdown), but local governments don't get off scott-free.
Utah County has to remodel its storage area, for example, so that there's electricity to recharge the machines and climate control to keep them from being ruined. Bids on that project are due June 21. Counties also are responsible for replacing the machines in the future.
Money is being spent at the state level as well, for training materials, signs, instruction manuals and other literature, and an advertising campaign -- complete with a decorated PT Cruiser -- to introduce the machines, said Joe Demma, chief of staff for the lieutenant governor's office.
There's a campaign against the machines, too. It includes the nonprofit groups Black Box Voting of Renton, Wash., and Utah Count Votes of Park City, and they've been actively trying to initiate a backlash against what they see as an insecure voting system.
Reports outline two main areas in which electronic voting machines could be compromised.
First, the machines themselves could be tampered with in storage or while in transit to the polling place, or somehow the programming could be altered so that votes are reassigned or otherwise tampered with.
That's the concern voiced in a report from Black Box Voting prepared by Finnish computer expert Harry Hursti. ...
A separate report prepared for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers postulates that someone could produce a counterfeit voter access card and use it to insert foreign coding into a voting machine while pretending to vote. ...
The second concern is possible "in the sci-fi sense," said Michael Shamos, ...
The other problem is very real, however, said Shamos, and it stems from the simple need to update software quickly on thousands of voting machines.
Other electronic voting machines do this safely, he said -- for instance, requiring a password to change software, and making a record of the change.
Diebold's machines use a "completely unsecured method" without those basic safeguards, he said, ...
"It's not a bug, it's not inadvertent," Shamos said. "It was built deliberately by Diebold for their convenience."
Diebold is working on that issue, said company spokesman David Bear -- but he also said the company considers the matter a "low risk" to security.
"We're working on a more redundant form of the system," Bear said, "which would probably be something like a hash key or some kind of an encryption so that if someone introduced something unintended it would be identified."
He acknowledged that insider fraud does happen. But the idea that someone could insert foreign software on the machines is "based on a couple of unlikely scenarios," Bear said, such has having unfettered access to the machines as well as the software and technological tools. Someone would also have to be "willing to commit a felony."
Shamos has heard that reasoning from Diebold and finds it credulous: "Gee, why do banks have doors on the vault?" he asked. "Someone would have to commit a felony to take the money out. But we still have the doors on the vault."
Demma, of the lieutenant governor's office, also made the case that electronic voting machines are difficult to subvert.
Practically speaking, Demma said, a saboteur would have to get through physical security barriers such as security seals and locks, which would show the machine had been tampered with, and a matching memory card encoded by Diebold and the clerk's office would be needed.
"You'd have an easier time hacking into a punchcard system than getting into these puppies," he said. "There isn't a clerk or a poll worker or a ballot official who would give you that kind of access."
Even with a "perfect storm of corruption," he added, there's still the paper records of votes that are verified by the voter.
That paper record does a lot to increase vote security, said Douglas Jones, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa. He also spent 10 years on the Iowa Board of Examiners for voting machines and systems.
"That creates an incredible opportunity to ensure honesty," Jones said. "If the hand count doesn't match the machine count, something's wrong. They're not supposed to be different at all."
Jones also said, however, that the vulnerabilities identified by electronic voting critics should be taken seriously -- but not because of someone embarking on a clandestine countermission befitting a television plot line from "Alias" or "24."
"People assume that the attacker is some evil outsider," Jones said. "Historically, the biggest problem with the elections in the United States has been corrupt political officials who are part of a political machine."
The amount of money at stake even in a simple county road contract could provide an incentive for someone to skew an election, he continued. If it was worth their while to bribe an official and hire a crooked programmer, the scheme might taint only five or 10 machines -- but that could be enough to tip a county election.
"Thank goodness most of the elected officials and the people who run for office are honest," Jones said.
After listening to Utah County's policies and procedures, Jones said officials have done an acceptable job -- for now.
"The model they've put in place is adequate for the short term," he said. "In the long term, like before November, it would be really good if every county in the country ... could lean on Diebold to install decent controls on the installation of firmware."
The electronic voting process
Many measures are taken to secure the electronic voting process from tampering and ensure a fair election.
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A1.