Tuesday :: Nov 4, 2003

Black Box Voting in CA


by Mary

Posted by Mary
[Editor's note: I was able to discuss this topic with some knowledgeable people this past weekend and got some valuable education on this issue. Here is what I found out. And I like that it compliments Paradox's post below.]

Earlier this year California's Secretary of State formed the Ad Hoc Touch Screen Task Force to look into some of the issues raised about the Direct Recording Electronic voting machines (DREs). The main concerns for the DRE systems are 1) they do not have a tamperproof audit trail, 2) they do not provide a paper receipt (or ballot) that allows the voter to see whether their vote was recorded as they requested and 3) they do not have any method that could be used to perform a recount of the election on the original vote if need be and 4) the administrative side of the DREs seems to have significant security flaws. So the task force formed had the following charter:

The four key issues addressed by the Task Force were: (1) Computer Security: Whether there is evidence of a security issue with DRE voting systems and, if so, the nature and probability of the security issue ; (2) Administrative Security: Whether the existing federal, State and local tests are adequate, and whether current security protocols and processes used by DRE vendors are adequate; (3) Voter Confidence: How to ensure voter confidence in our voting systems and elections; and (4) Voter Verification: Whether verification by voters is useful or not; whether verification by voters is necessary or not?

As of yet, the Secretary of State has not issued a ruling based on the recommendations from this task force.

With more scrutiny put on the DRE systems, the exposed problems are resulting in much more caution on the side of the election officials. On Monday, California decided to halt their certification effort on the latest Diebold systems. One California gadfly, Jim March, has been assiduously working to show why the DRE systems should be stopped and he provided much of the information that stopped the certification in its tracks. If you want to understand how easy it would be for an insider to compromise the election, visit Jim's site where he provides step-by-step procedures for altering the votes using Diebold's software.

Why the rush to update voting machines in the midst of this controversy? Of course, one of the reasons is that the Florida debacle in 2000 showed that defective voting systems could create a significant impediment to voting. After that the Congress passed the HAVA (Help America Vote Act) that provided grants for updating the voting machines. Now there is a problem for counties that they need to use the money soon or lose it. Also with the passage of the Disabilities act, counties were required to make sure their systems would facilitate voting by the disabled. DREs make meeting this requirement easier. Many county voting registrars are opting for DREs because they want to have easy and fast results and some of them are more than happy that controversial recounts are not supported.

One of the major problems with the current DRE systems is they do not have mechanisms for performing a recount on the original votes. The reason people have been asking for a paper receipt is that this can be used as a ballot that can be verified by the voter and then used when there is a need for a recount. The DRE manufacturer have said that they can create paper ballots if there is a need for a recount, but this ballot is not one that the voter verified and therefore can have a different value than the voter actually entered. This requirement is much like having a bank transaction which is saved to the ledger. But what happens if someone skimmed 20% off your transaction before entering it into the ledger? To prevent this, banks provide you a receipt and then follow it up with a monthly report that you can use to reconcile your transactions. There needs to be a process that allows people to know that their transaction (or ballot) has not been tampered and the only way to do this is to have a paper trail.

In California, the law places requirements on the Secretary of State to make sure the election is accurate, secure and follows the laws:

601. Examination and Approval Criteria. The Secretary of State shall not approve a proposed item without a finding that the item conforms to all applicable laws, procedures and regulations, including the right to a secret ballot, does not compromise the accuracy, security or integrity of the election process, nor interferes with the voterís ease and convenience in voting.

California's law also requires that the Secretary of State perform a random 1% sample recount of the ballots cast before certifying the election. Because there is no paper trail for the DREs, the votes from these counties cannot be used to provide a valid recount. This means that these systems should not have been certified as compliant with the law by the previous Secretary of State. In fact, I believe that because this is a requirement of the law, voters in the counties that cannot provide recounts based on the original vote would be in their right to sue the state until this requirement is met. Are there any lawyers that might clarify this for us?

Why has this issue been so slow to catch fire? And why are not more progressive groups working to help advertise this problem? One of the objections raised on adding a paper receipt to the DRE machines was that this could be in violation of the Disabilities Act. (This is the reason that Common Cause has not taken up this issue.) Fortunately, the Department of Justice has recently ruled that they believe there is no conflict in providing a paper receipt and compliance with the Disability Act.

Another reason for why this issue isn't catching fire is that citizens that are more moderate do not want to sign up for a conspiracy theory (e.g., the Republicans are planning to steal the election) therefore they are not ready to listen to this problem. It seems to me that the problem with the DRE voting systems can be made clear without having people putting on a tinfoil hat. We simply need to connect voting systems to banking systems and to make these points: 1) We expect the ATMs to give us a receipt -- this shouldn't be any different or harder for you to get the same level of assurance for your vote. 2) Banks put in place systems to make sure that people cannot steal money by having more than one backup check to prevent this. It makes sense to do the same for our elections. 3) Banks need to provide verifiable and auditable results. Elections deserve at least the same.

This is an important issue to resolve before the next election. Lisa at Ruminate This has some excellent suggestions on how you might help raise the awareness of this issue including contacting your representatives asking them to support HR2239 (Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2003).

If California decides to put in more rigorous standards for the DRE systems, this should help other states to ask for the same. Better yet would be to have national standards about what basic requirements must be met in order to certify a DRE (HR 2239). Contact your Secretary of State to make sure they understand your concerns. Write letters to your local paper and explain the problem so that people understand that we just need to have the same protection and process for our votes as for our bank accounts. Remind them that we actually put in systems to help prevent fraud and to recover from errors. Our elections should be taken just as seriously.

To find out more visit Bev Harris' site: Black Box Voting.

x-posted at Pacific Views

Updated to reflect PST for time posted.

Mary :: 8:10 PM :: Comments (0) :: Digg It!