Thursday, November 4, 2004

E-vote goes smoothly, but experts skeptical

The Associated Press, November 4, 2004


"It was a very positive day for the American voting system generally and for electronic voting machines particularly," said Harris Miller, president of the industry trade group Information Technology Association of America, which represents voting equipment companies. "The machines performed beautifully ... Instead of theories about catastrophes, the simple reality is that the machines produce accurate results and the voters love them."

Computer scientists reserved judgment.

Many acknowledged that the hardware performed well. But software errors may have changed results, they said. The vast majority of touch screens in the United States do not produce paper records. And that means, critics say, that the machines could alter or delete ballots without anyone noticing.

"What has most concerned scientists are problems that are not observable, so the fact that no major problems were observed says nothing about the system," said David Jefferson, a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. "The fact that we had a relatively smooth election yesterday does not change at all the vulnerability these systems have to fraud or bugs."

Avi Rubin, one of the nation's leading critics of e-voting, said he was relieved and encouraged that the machines didn't fail en masse on Election Day.

But Rubin, who worked in Maryland as a poll judge Tuesday, still supports major changes in election technology -- including requirements that the machines produce paper records, and that independent researchers be permitted to examine their software for problems.

"I've been saying all along that my biggest fear is that someone would program a machine to give a wrong answer," said Rubin, a Johns Hopkins computer scientist. "If that were to happen, the machine would still work fine -- we just wouldn't know it."

Statisticians at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and California Institute of Technology are asking county election officials throughout the nation for raw election data and hope to perform "forensic tests" that could take at least a month. The fledgling U.S. Election Assistance Commission is also compiling data and plans to issue a report later this month.

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