Friday, February 18, 2005

Unilect's voting machine freezes up during demonstration

By Bill Toland, The Post-Gazette, February 16, 2005

This week, during a demonstration of his California-based company's voting machine in Mercer County, Pennsylvania, Unilect president Jack Gerbel experienced what too many voters have already been through when voting on touchscreen voting machines -- a "glitch". The demonstration is part of an investigation being led by Michael Shamos, who has frequently opposed a voter verified paper record requirement in recent years, and makes some interesting comments in the story.



Until 2 p.m. yesterday, Jack Gerbel's demonstration of his UniLect touch screen voting system was going smoothly. Then, suddenly, the screen froze up, unresponsive to numerous finger-pokes from Gerbel and a bystander.

"It's worked fine up to this point," Gerbel said, faintly flustered, fiddling with wires.

Minutes later, the UniLect system was back online, tabulating mock votes correctly, working just the way it's supposed to.

That brief episode, more than any other during yesterday's demonstration before state officials, illustrated how the computerized system can be mostly reliable, yet prone to occasional glitches that can temporarily confound even the people who know the system inside and out.

UniLect designed the touch screen systems that are at the heart of an election investigation in Mercer County, where some of the machines malfunctioned because of a computer code that was installed incorrectly.

That bad coding, along with some other alleged instances of computer malfunctions and Election Day bumbling, led to a presidential undervote of greater than 7 percent last November. It also led to the resignation of James Bennington, the county's election and registration director.


An independent election committee, created after the undervote came to light, asked the Department of State to re-examine the Unilect system. Conducting the examination was Michael Shamos, a Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist who has experience reviewing electronic voting machines in Pennsylvania and Texas.

In a few weeks, Shamos will issue a report, making recommendations both to UniLect and the State Department. The State Department could rule that UniLect systems can no longer be used in Pennsylvania, but it's more likely that UniLect will have to update its software to meet Shamos' suggestions.

Back in 2000, when folks in Florida were fretting about the unreliability of paper and punch-card ballots, UniLect and Gerbel, the company president, became overnight darlings.

But last year's presidential election marked a reversal of fortunes for the California-based company. Thanks to the Mercer undervote and a programming error that wiped out 7,000 votes in Carteret County, N.C., election observers are wondering if computerized ballots are any more reliable than paper ones.

Yesterday's exam was supposed to be a strict legal test, meaning Shamos was testing only whether the UniLect system, when working properly, meets the state election code. But Shamos also applied logic and stress tests of his own, trying to trip up the voting system by purposely ignoring directions, pushing the wrong button, voting for a straight party ticket and then canceling that vote.

The results?

"I'm really troubled, in general, by these devices," Shamos said. He cited not only the occasional malfunction, but also possible security holes that could allow a determined hacker to alter the programming in the vote-counting computers or delete folders containing ballots.

Shamos' hypothetical security breaches were far-fetched, and his made-up hackers were, by his own admission, audacious. But hackers who'd want to rig the outcome of an election would have to be pretty audacious to begin with, he said.

"It doesn't have to be a weekend chore. Someone [could] spend four years on this," he said.

George Mitchell, Gerbel's software guru, said Shamos' "horror" scenarios were implausible in theory, and nearly impossible to carry out in practice.

Shamos and Mercer County Commissioner Michele Brooks said the undervote could be remedied if Mercer's UniLect systems employed a pop-up screen, warning voters that they were about to cast an incomplete ballot. That pop-up feature is used in other UniLect models, but not Mercer's.

Mercer County paid $900,000 for the UniLect system. Beaver and Greene counties also use the UniLect system.

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