Wednesday :: Dec 17, 2003

Touch Screen Voting Machine Update


by Mary

Posted by Mary
The touch screen voting machines issue is finally hitting the mainstream as shown by an article in the NY Times discussing the conference held last week entitled "Building Trust and Confidence in Voting Systems". According to the article, the momentum is growing against just trusting electronic systems. And now Barbara Boxer and some of her fellow Senators are introducing a bill into the Senate to require a voter verified paper trail as a companion bill to HR 2239 introduced by Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J and which already has 94 sponsors.

Upgrading the current voting machines with electronic touch screen voting systems (Direct Recording Electronic systems -- aka: DREs) has been backed by a number of people including advocates for the disabled because these systems for the first time provide a mechanism for the blind to cast their vote in total privacy. This has set one group (the advocates for better access to voting) against another group (those concerned about the reliability of the vote) who would normally be allies. Elections officials like the new machines because they believe it makes recounts less likely. (Yup, that's certainly true -- in fact, they make having a recount impossible.)

So now the problem with DREs is no longer just an issue of the computer geeks, but has become a legitimate topic of discussion for the big guys.

Yet, until there is a federal law that specifies the minimum requirements for auditable touchscreen voting machines, the advance of these systems is through the state and county election officials. On this front, some states have decided to wait until the controversy has been settled before purchasing new systems, whereas other locations are proceeding to purchase DREs now before the 2004 election season.

Recently San Diego county election officials voted to buy some ten thousand systems from Diebold despite the fact that they didn't have a paper trail based partly on the promise that these systems would be upgraded for free when the technology was available. All DRE systems in California must be upgraded by the 2006 election, yet these upgrades will not be available in time for the 2004 election.

The company has agreed to retrofit the machines [for] free so the county can meet a July 2006 deadline imposed by the state to have voting equipment that can produce a paper trail for voters.

At the same time, San Diego also decided to buy an optical scanner system to handle the absentee ballots that come in. This is probably wise as many people are advocating voting absentee until there are auditable paper trails on DREs.

Yet isn't that nice? Diebold is offering to upgrade their DREs to include paper trails for free. Unfortunately, the citizens of Montgomery County, Maryland, will not get this little inducement. Recently disclosed internal Diebold memos show that if that county asks for an upgrade, they should pay through the "ying-yang".

The e-mail from "Ken," dated Jan. 3, 2003, discusses a (Baltimore) Sun article about a University of Maryland study of the Diebold system:

"There is an important point that seems to be missed by all these articles: they already bought the system. At this point they are just closing the barn door. Let's just hope that as a company we are smart enough to charge out the yin if they try to change the rules now and legislate voter receipts."

"Ken" later clarifies that he meant "out the yin-yang," adding, "any after-sale changes should be prohibitively expensive."

Nevertheless, Maryland elections officials insist that the Diebold systems they have are perfectly secure and no one is concerned about the vote, so they've voted to buy even more DREs to cover the rest of the state. Unfortunately, now they are running into a bipartisan citizen's roadblock. It seems that if people are given some information about the problem and a website that makes it easy to express their concern, they are anxious to let their elected officials know. The DRE-resistors wonder why there so much fuss about providing a voter verified ballot.

"Every other machine Diebold makes has a receipt -- ATMs, cash registers," Zeese said. "It just makes no sense that they wouldn't do the same for voting." Especially since Diebold, they say, just agreed to add a paper trail to touch-screen voting machines in San Diego County for free.

Nevada has decided to purchase new DREs with a paper trail, yet they decided to buy them from a different vendor because they didn't want to gamble on Diebold's systems.

The decision to go with Sequoia machines was based in part on a review by the state Gaming Control Board's slot machine experts who issued a report saying the Diebold machine that was analyzed "represented a legitimate threat to the integrity of the election process."

If Nevada slot machine experts are as concerned as the computer scientists, then there really is a reason to get to the bottom of this issue.

How should we balance the needs of the blind with the concern about the reliability of the vote? This does not need to be a zero sum game. Here is one way to balance the needs:

The prudent thing to do while vendors improve their technology is to limit the deployment of electronic voting machines to one per polling place to comply with new federal language and disability access requirements, require those machines to have a voter verified paper trail, and use paper-based optical scan systems for other polling place voters and for absentee voters. This would be a far less expensive, more reliable and secure solution than to go all touchscreen right now.

Find out what your county's voting system plans are and if they are on unauditable DREs, let your election officials know that you have concerns and send a copy to your Secretary of State who is responsible for the integrity and reliability of the vote. Write letters to the editor about the problems and urge people to vote by absentee ballot until the security flaws with DREs are fixed. Finally ask your representative and senators to support the bills demanding reliable and auditable voting systems.

Mary :: 11:06 PM :: Comments (2) :: Digg It!