Electronic ballots: Will your vote be counted?
Critics fear hackers, system failure could strike
By BLAKE MORLOCK
Pandora seems to have a brand new box. It's called the Diebold TSX voting machine.
Touch-screen voting has become a touchstone for concerns about reliability, system failure, hacking and outright conspiracy to write election results into computer code.
The Pima County Board of Supervisors dived into the fight this month when it voted 3-2 to buy 409 of the machines, one for each precinct, in part because the state pays the $2 million tab for the system, selected by Secretary of State Jan Brewer.
She opted for the Diebold machines because Pima County already uses a Diebold optical scanning system, which most voters will continue to use. The new touch-screen machines are reserved for the disabled community and were required by federal law this year.
The 2000 presidential election put vote-counting problems out front in public opinion and some became immediately concerned about votes entered directly into computers without a paper record.
The county's new machines provide proof on paper of how a voter cast his ballot but that doesn't satisfy some who complain the system is vulnerable in other ways.
Mary Thompson, a retired computer programmer, went to a demonstration of the new machines in May at the county Administrative Building.
She tried voting "no" on a mock ballot measure and the vote came up "yes" on the screen because she didn't hit the "no" button dead center, she said.
"What it indicates is sloppy programming," Thompson said.
The new machines also could pose problems for the target users: disabled people.
Diebold officials did not return phone calls this week, but Deputy Secretary of State Kevin Tyne called the system safe and secure.
of the complaints heard in Tucson was voiced when Brewer held a similar open house in Phoenix, Tyne said.
"The response was overwhelmingly positive," he said.
Supervisors Richard Elias, a Democrat, and Republican Ray Carroll voted against buying the Diebold devices in part because the county is one of 13 in Arizona being sued by the citizens group Voter Action to halt use of touch-screen machines.
Ballot boxes have a dark history of being stuffed by overzealous campaign workers, and computer ballot "boxes," the argument goes, can be stuffed by hackers or programmers.
Douglas Jones, an associate professor of computer sciences at The University of Iowa, got involved in the touch-screen voting controversy as an expert in computer security and a member of the Iowa Board of Election Examiners. Security is a major problem, he said.
The machine is just part of what computer voting critics call a larger problem: proprietary voting systems. The inner workings of these systems are secrets held by the company that builds them.
"The proprietary issue makes it difficult for us to know what's going on," Jones said. "Every time you try to ask certain questions, you get back, 'I'm sorry, that's not publicly available.' "
A computer engineer can load software with a bias or a hacker can get into a computer and change the final vote tabulation on Diebold's tabulation program, he said.
"It takes a sophisticated hacker," Jones said, "but there are a lot of sophisticated hackers out there."
Seattle-based BlackBox Voting.org claims to have repeatedly hacked the Diebold system and a week ago one of its members demonstrated for 100 Tucsonans how it could be done without even using a password.
Jim Archer used a Microsoft program to essentially cut and paste fake results into a government computer.
The answer, Jones said, is random audits of vote counts and a paper record of votes cast.
Arizona forbids hand-counting ballots but a bill in the Legislature would change that and allow manual vote counting after random checks of precinct votes show problems.
Tom Ryan of Arizona Citizens for Fair Elections said touch-screen voting machines are as capable of error as any computer.
"This word 'glitch' is becoming so common in this industry, it's really becoming a problem," he said.
Tyne said the system is safe and noted there has never been a confirmed instance of hacking in other states where the machines are used.
Sporadic problems nationally have added to the fervor of the debate.
-- In 2004 in North Carolina, a ballot-counting machine from Diebold competitor Election Systems & Software started to count down and erase votes instead of counting up and adding them.
-- In 2004, a computer ballot counting system in Maricopa County produced 439 more votes in a recount than were counted during the first tabulation.
-- In 2000, Global Election Systems machines lost 16,000 votes for Vice President Al Gore in Florida.
Diebold became a focus of the debate in 2004 when its CEO raised money for President Bush and said he would work to deliver Ohio's 20 electoral votes to the president.
Combine that with the secrecy and problems, and activists, including Tucson-area resident John Brakey, have an issue to make them fight.
He's collected reams of documents and punctuates sentences with phrases such as, "I caught 'em," as he discusses the issue with passion.
He helped form AUDIT AZ, which is working to get rid of touch-screen votes.
"Election integrity is not about right and left," he said. "It's about right and wrong."
Citizen Staff Writer Brad Branan contributed to this article.
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