Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Alameda County supervisors approve registrar's plans to swap Diebold machines

Yesterday I attended a hearing of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, where they considered the county's plans to meet federal and state accessibility and security requirements for their voting system.

It was a disappointing day. I was hoping the supervisors would request a cost-benefit analysis of various options they were considering, such as replacing only some of their Diebold TS machines with newer TSx machines equipped with a voter-verified paper audit trail. Instead they voted 3-1, with one excused supervisor, to allow the registrar to begin negotiating a contract with Diebold to replace the county's entire inventory of 4,000 TS machines with TSx machines, which have not yet been certified by the state.

Throughout the meeting, there was confusion, misinformation and disinformation flying from all quarters. The registrar, county counsel, Diebold, and the activists who spoke all made various statements that were confusing or misleading. For example, the supervisors were considering a "blended" system, with paper ballots and one or two touchscreens per polling place. In her report to the supervisors, acting Registrar of Voters Elaine Ginnold stated that "the County Counsel advised that use of this option could raise an equal protection issue with disabled voters who would not have access to the same system as every other voter." When one of the supervisors asked the County Counsel staff to clarify, she responded first by saying this option would raise an equal protection problem, then went on to say it wouldn't. When people in the audience asked for clarification, the President of the Board, Keith Carson, asked her to clarify, and she stated that it would not raise an equal protectioon issue.

Shortly after that, another County Counsel staffer further clarified by saying that his office's statement in the staff report was incomplete and did not reflect his office's advice, only part of it. He went on to say that the advice given to the registrar was that the blended option did not violate the principles of equal protection if meaningful access is given across the board (i.e. if all voters can choose electronic or paper ballots).

Several Diebold staff people spoke on behalf of the company. Mark Radke of Diebold read an excerpt from the San Diego Grand Jury investigation into that county's March 2004 voting technology meltdown, when half of the counties polling places were inoperable at some time during the day due to equipment problems. Radke read the part of the report that said no problems were found with the TSx machine. Of course, he left out any description of problems with other Diebold equipment, such as the smart card encoder that was used in San Diego in that election which had multiple flaws that prevented people from voting.

There were many passionate activists who attended the meeting. Some made very eloquent statements, and some had experience as pollworkers. Several got up and demanded the supervisors hand-count paper ballots and opposed using any kind of computer technology in the voting process. Others demanded open source software. While it's understandable to me why these opinions are popular among many voting technology reform activists, it was not at all likely that the supervisors would have embraced either of these suggestions.

Supervisor Keith Carson, the board's president, asked many pointed questions of the registrar and of Diebold and to his credit was persistent in getting straight answers. At one point, Carson asked Radke to outline the most serious problem they've had with their voting machine. Radke went on to talk about all the testing their machines undergo. Carson tried to clarify his question, asking if the problems Alameda has experienced were human error, and weren't due to Diebold's technology? Radke replied that the architecture of their system is designed to protect against problems. Carson then asked, "So you are saying no?", to which Radke replied, "We have never lost a vote." Carson again asked, "So, no?", and finally, Radke said no.

The meeting started at 12:40 p.m., with no lunch break and went straight through the afternoon. As the day wore on, people in the room clearly were growing irritable and impatient. The public comment section of the meeting ended around 3:30 p.m., and Carson asked if anyone wanted to make a motion. No one on the board said anything. Then one of the supervisors, Gail Steele, suggested they wait until the TSx is certified by the state before moving forward. She got no response from other supervisors on that. The supervisors had a discussion on their various options, and it was clear that no one on the board wanted to make a motion. Finally, with some prompting from Carson, Steele moved option 2, which is to replace all the TS machines with TSx machines. Carson voted against it, but didn't say why until the other three supervisors present voted for it.

The supervisors also voted in support of having outside technical expertise on Alameda County's Voting Equipment Committee, and to conduct an independent poll of Alameda voters to measure their voting system preferences and level of voter confidence.

My sense by the end of the day was that the supervisors were reluctant to move forward with Diebold but were too confused, tired and weary from the hours of testimony and complicated information being passed on to them that they just wanted to be done with the issue. An audio archive of the meeting is available online. More details on yesterday's meeting are featured in Ian Hoffman's story in the Oakland Tribune, excerpted below.


Despite stout public opposition, Alameda County will likely stick with Diebold electronic voting machines for the next congressional and presidential elections.

County supervisors gave the go-ahead Tuesday to negotiate a $5.4 million deal for Diebold's latest touch-screen machine, known as the TSx, equipped with a printer so voters can verify their electronic choices.

Supervisor Gail Steele said she can't operate a computer, but she's able to vote on Diebold's machines and argues "it's the way of the future."


E-voting critics lambasted Diebold and touch-screen voting for most of a four-hour hearing, saying fully computerized voting was fraught with secrecy, lax testing and a lack of voter confidence.

"We're basically talking about secret code, secret testing by the vendors and secret results," said Barbara Simons, who teaches computer science at Stanford University. She advocated paper ballots read by optical scanners at each polling place. Others wanted no machines at all, just human eyes and hands on the ballots.

"There is no need for electronic technology of any kind," said retired psychiatrist Don Goldmacher, co-chairman of the Voting Rights Coalition.

They reminded supervisors that nowhere has encountered more difficulty with Diebold and its voting systems than Alameda County, with Diebold products erroneously giving thousands of Democrat votes to a Socialist in one election and breaking down by the hundreds in another election.


"I really do trust our registrar of voters, who really does know a lot about this," Steele said, "And I really don't think there's one thing they would do if they thought it was illegal."

Steele led a majority in rejecting an equal or lower-cost option of using optically scanned paper ballots at the polling places, with one or two touch-screens for visually handicapped voters. Ginnold said

pollworkers have a tough enough time handling one voting system.

"It's more the confusion at the polling site. I'm just really concerned about that, and that could make us look bad," said Supervisor Nate Miley. "I'm just for having some experts take a look at this and doing a poll to see what the people say."

The sole dissent came from board President Keith Carson, who said no voting system is perfect or error-free.

"It's not an anti-touch-screen or anti-electronic voting with me," he said. "To me verifiability is the fundamental issue here, because whether you are physically challenged or using a different language there has to be a way at the end of the day to verify your vote."

Los Angeles County uses paper ballots, and Alameda County would do well to explore the same, he said. Instead, Carson suggested there is "entrapment" of the county by Diebold and the press of new laws and elections that make it hard to seek an alternative. "We've already been going down the slippery route with Diebold," he said.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

CVF urges Alameda County supervisors to consider alternatives

Today I will be in Oakland for the Alameda County Board of Supervisors' hearing on their future voting system plans. I sent a letter to the Supervisors outlining a number of alternatives to consider before making their decision. Today's Oakland Tribune also features a story about today's hearing. Excerpts are below.


It's shopping time for elections officials, the moment to buy the means of democratic choice for the next congressional and presidential elections.

And some of the nation's largest jurisdictions — Los Angeles, Chicago and Greater Miami — are headed toward voting on paper.

"Could it be a sign of things to come? I'm not sure," said Sean Greene, research director for the nonpartisan reform group

A real test of whether the nation's big urban places are moving away from electronic voting could come today in Alameda County as supervisors consider a voting-system upgrade.

The same county supervisors who three years ago spent $12 million on Diebold touch-screen voting machines and turned the county into a West Coast e-voting pioneer are weighing whether to invest more heavily or trade in for a paper-based optical scanning system.

That makes this morning's hearing a battlefield, with Texas-based Diebold Election Systems sending top executives to keep their foothold here and a coalition of e-voting critics arguing the company and its products are not trustworthy.

Alameda County Registrar of Voters Elaine Ginnold wants Diebold's latest touchscreen, called the AccuVote TSx, a lighter, fuller-functioning version of the county's existing AccuVote TS machines that also can print a paper record allowing voters to confirm their choices.

Full paper-based voting, Ginnold argues, is costly and cumbersome. Conducting a primary election in her county requires at least 33 different ballots for each precinct — one for each of eight parties, plus three cross-over parties, all in three languages. Paper ballots also can be imprecise, subject to bad or ambiguous markings by voters.

But if Ginnold thinks paper-based voting systems are a thing of the past, they also could be the future. Absentee balloting, or voting by mail, is growing fast in California, with more than half of voters in some jurisdictions mailing in their paper ballots.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Alameda County to hold hearing tomorrow on its voting system plans

Tomorrow Alameda County supervisors will hold a public hearing to discuss their future plans for the county's voting system. The hearing is scheduled to take place at 10:30 a.m. during the supervisors' weekly meeting, held at the County Administration Building in the Supervisors' Chamber, at 1221 Oak Street, Fifth Floor, Room 512 in Oakland. The meeting agenda and live audio broadcast are available online.

Today's Contra Costa Times features an article by Guy Ashley providing background on tomorrow's meeting. Excerpts below:


Four years after Alameda County purchased its touch-screen voting system for $12 million, the manufacturer wants the county to sink nearly $6 million more into upgrades to meet pending state requirements that voters be given paper receipts confirming their votes.

The proposal is sure to meet its share of criticism, given that the manufacturer is Texas-based Diebold Election Systems, whose equipment has had numerous problems since its installation.

The county's chief elections official supports the proposal, saying it would be far cheaper to upgrade than to buy a new system in time for the July 1, 2006 deadline for voter-verified paper trails for all electronic voting systems in California.

"If we went out to bid for a completely new voting system, we think it would cost us $14 million at a minimum," said Elaine Ginnold, the county's acting Registrar of Voters.

Ginnold will formally present the plan to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors at a public hearing Tuesday. Representatives from Diebold are expected to be present to answer questions, and to provide assurances that Alameda County's problems with their equipment are all in the past.

Diebold's plan calls for the county to exchange its AccuVote machines for a newer generation of AccuVote machines that are lighter and more versatile and that come with printers.


The new model of AccuVote machine has yet to be certified by the state, but Ginnold said she believes certification will occur in the coming few weeks. Any contract with Diebold to upgrade would be contingent on the state certifying the machines.

The county's existing Diebold system has complicated Election Day operations with various equipment glitches, including on one occasion assigning votes to the wrong candidate.

Diebold agreed last November to pay the state and Alameda County $2.6 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that it made false claims about the performance of its equipment when it sold it to the county for about $12 million in 2001.

The settlement came after local and state officials found that Diebold had installed uncertified software in Alameda County's touch-screens, that its system was vulnerable to computer hackers and that its central vote-tabulating program gave several thousand absentee votes to the wrong candidate during the October 2003 gubernatorial recall election.

Critics of the proposed Diebold upgrade say the string of past problems sends a resounding message that Alameda County should seek another alternative.

"These machines are very fallible," said Donald Goldmacher, a Berkeley physician who opposes the proposed upgrade as part of a group calling itself the Voting Rights Task Force.

"Their software is secret and proprietary, so we have no way of knowing if these machines are doing something they should not be doing when they're tabulating our votes."

Ginnold said she's aware of resistance in some sectors to Diebold's product, but that she believes the new machines are first-rate.

As for claims that the equipment will allow hackers to breach the integrity of Alameda County elections, she said she's not too concerned.

"If you say to a hacker, 'come into our vote-count room and here's the password to our server' of course there would be reason to be concerned," Ginnold said. "But we don't do that. We keep our vote-count room locked and alarmed and allow very few people to have access to the server."

Friday, June 24, 2005

CVF & EFF urge California's Secretary of State to support public verification of election results

Today the California Voter Foundation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation submitted a letter to Secretary of State Bruce McPherson urging him to support legislation that would ensure computerized vote counts are publicly verified. The CVF/EFF letter is in response to a request for public comment the Secretary of State issued last week. See Tuesday's blog entry for more details on this request

Excerpts from the CVF/EFF letter:


California’s manual count law was enacted in 1965, shortly after software first started being used in punch card voting to tabulate ballots. 


It is expressly stated in California statute that the purpose of the manual count is to verify the accuracy of the automated count.  The one percent manual count is the one and only procedure performed in California’s voting process that gives the public any assurance that the software used to count votes has not been compromised. 

The manual count provides the only window into the vote counting process and provides members of the public with the opportunity to observe with their own eyes that the software used to count ballots is accurate and reliable.


This law has served California voters well for most of the past four decades by ensuring that software glitches, human error, or attempted vote fraud do not result in erroneous vote totals.  The manual count law provides a form of transparency in our voting process which is crucial given that the software used to count ballots is proprietary and not open to public inspection.

However, over the past five years, the manual count law has been undermined with the introduction of paperless, electronic voting machines.  Counties using electronic voting machines do not have an independent audit trail they can use to verify the accuracy of their software vote counts.


SB 370 and AB 1636 would clarify in California statute that the voter-verified paper audit trail is the record to be used to perform the one percent manual count.  We strongly urge you to support these two bills. The voter-verified paper audit trail must be used to perform the one percent manual tally.  Otherwise, the voter verified paper audit trail is practically meaningless, and the one percent manual tally is totally meaningless.  If the paper audit trail that the voter verified is not used to verify the overall election results, then it will be possible for the paper record to reflect one set of votes while the electronic record reflects a different set of votes without ever being detected.

Objections have been raised to this and similar proposed legislation, based partly on fears that accessibility concerns will be ignored.  In fact, security and accessibility concerns are not and should not be construed as conflicting interests.

It is in all voters’ interests to ensure that elections officials have the ability, and are required by law, to conduct a meaningful audit of election results.  Without routine and public verification of software vote counts, election officials will be far less likely to detect software vote counting problems or security breaches. 


We realize that some county registrars are opposed to this legislation, but we should not forfeit the only form of public verification of software vote counts due to cost or time constraints.  It is the responsibility of California elections officials to ensure that vote counts can be publicly audited.  Administrative concerns, while valid, must come second.  Elections are designed to provide the public with a meaningful opportunity to express their views on candidates and measures.  If we lose public verification of election results, one can anticipate that many Californians will lose their incentive to vote altogether. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

SoS Bruce McPherson seeks public comment on vote auditing legislation

California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson is seeking input from the public on legislation currently pending in the California Legislature to address voter verified paper audit trail standards for electronic voting machines. His request for public comment is available on the Secretary of State's web site; comments must be received no later than this Friday, June 24.

Two bills are at issue here: Senate Bill 370, authored by Senator Debra Bowen, and Assembly Bill 1636, authored by Assembly Member Tom Umberg. Both bills would require in statute that the voter verified paper audit trail be used to perform the one percent manual recount that is required under state law. Both bills have passed out of their houses of origin and have gained unanimous, bipartisan support so far in the Legislature.

Many activists who have worked on the paper trail assumed that once it was mandated, it would of course be the record that county officials would use to verify the accuracy of the computerized vote count, since printing electronic ballot images and comparing those to computerized counts is a completely meaningless exercise. Unfortunately, some county registrars intend to continue this practice, even after voter verified paper audit trails are mandated.

SB 370 and AB 1636 would require by law that the voter verified paper audit trail be used to perform the manual count. CVF will be submitting a letter to the Secretary of State urging him to support these changes in the law so that it is clear to vendors, election officials and voters that the manual count be performed in a manner that truly verifies the accuracy of software vote counts.

Anyone who wishes to weigh in on this matter is encouraged to do so. Comments can be addressed to:

Constituent Affairs

Secretary of State's Executive Division

1500 11th Street, Sacramento, CA 95814

Via fax: 916-653-9675

Via email:

Friday, June 17, 2005

News coverage of yesterday's Voting Systems Panel hearing

Today's continuation of yesterday's Voting Systems Panel meeting was less crowded, but there were still many people who showed up again today for the hearing. Many activists spoke throughout the morning, again on the same themes as yesterday, calling for open source voting system software and opposing electronic voting machines.

There was some news coverage in today's papers about yesterday's hearing. Ian Hoffman's story for ANG Newspapers and Bill Ainsworth's article in the San Diego Union-Tribune provide additional coverage of yesterday's events.

Excerpts from Ian Hoffman's story are below:


As California rolls toward a train wreck with federal and state laws, voting activists told state elections officials that Diebold and its voting machines aren't welcome along for the ride.

Witness after witness — Bay Area liberals seasoned with a few Libertarians and Republicans — called on state officials Thursday to block Diebold's voting machines from the nation's largest elections market, casting the firm as synonymous with lost trust and vote "theft" in the 2000 and 2004 elections.

In a jam-packed hearing punctuated by chanting, activists demanded paper ballots be counted by hand, by computers running open-source software if absolutely necessary, but never by secret software closely held by a company known for executive support of Republicans up to the president.

"If you value democracy, you will not certify these hackable machines with secret mechanisms that are considered proprietary," said Berkeley's Phoebe Anne Sorgen. "You will dump Diebold Elections Systems and software."

"If you throw them out of this state, they're dead. Their backs are up against the wall," said Jim March, a Sacramento Republican and activist for

Looking over the angry crowd of more than 200, the chairman of California's Voting Systems and Procedures Panel decided against making a recommendation to Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, a break with a panel tradition of prompt approvals of voting systems.

If McPherson follows the activists' advice, counties will flirt with breaking January 2006 deadlines in state and federal law. The federal Help America Vote Act requires handicapped-accessible voting machines in every polling place nationwide. California law requires any county using touchscreen voting machines to offer a paper printout so voters can verify their electronic ballot choices, and so local elections officials have a paper record for recounts.


Warren Slocum, the registrar of voters in San Mateo County, pressed unsuccessfully for state lawmakers to let his voters cast their ballots entirely by mail, as Oregon voters have for years. But Democrats and Republicans suspected the other party might benefit more and rejected the idea, so he's stuck with voting machines, expected to cost the county $7 million.

"Now we're faced with spending millions of dollars on a technology that in many ways is suspect," he said. "We need more choices. There need to be better products — products that work."


Excerpts from Bill Ainsworth's story are below:


Scores of activists urged a state advisory panel yesterday to reject a bid by Diebold Elections Systems Inc. to win approval for use of voting machines that were decertified last year.

Diebold is the maker of a $31 million touch screen voting system that malfunctioned in San Diego County during the March 2004 primary, causing more than one-third of polling places to open late.

"Diebold has a checkered past in this state, and that alarms many activists," said Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. "That's why this room is packed today."


Last year, then-Secretary of State Kevin Shelley banned San Diego and three other counties from using the Diebold machines for the fall general election. He gave counties using electronic voting technology until November 2006 to develop a system that produces a paper trail.

Since then, the company has worked on improvements and submitted the new system for state and federal tests.

This month, a staff report released by the Secretary of State's office recommended approval of the system, saying that it had performed accurately.

Mikel Haas, San Diego County's registrar of voters, said yesterday that even if the company wins approval from the state, the county doesn't plan to use the touch screen machines until the June 2006 primary.

In the upcoming San Diego mayor's race and the Nov. 8 special election, the county plans to use the optical-scan system it used in November's election, Haas said.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Report on today's Voting Systems and Procedures Panel hearing

Today the Secretary of State's Voting Systems and Procedures Panel (VSPP) met in Sacramento. The panel membership has changed since the last meeting. Current members of the VSPP are: Brad Clark, chief of the elections division; Caren Daniels-Meade, who is in the Secretary of State's communications office and is a veteran staffer of the agency; Bill Wood, Undersecetary of State and chair of the panel; Lee Kercher, head of Information Technology for the Secretary of State; and Daniel Gullahorn, a deputy of the state information office.

David Jefferson is no longer on the VSPP, but has been renamed as chair of the Secretary of State’s Technical Advisory Board (TAB), which will provide outside technical input to the Secretary of State on election technology issues. Other members of the TAB include UC Davis computer scientist Matt Bishop, UC Berkeley computer scientist David Wagner, and Loretta Guarino Reed, who is an expert in accessibility issues for Adobe Systems.

There was a huge, outspoken crowd at the Secretary of State’s office today. About two hundred people showed up, many traveling from around the state to attend and participate. There was a line out the door when I arrived this morning, and the meeting started late to give people time to get in and get seated.

It was quite a lively meeting, with audience members cheering, applauding and booing at various times. Several speakers represented disability rights groups, and a few registrars testified but most of the 50 or so speakers who testified were there to register their opposition to Diebold voting equipment.

Speakers were limited to two minutes, which upset many people who wanted to transfer their time to other speakers (a practice that was not allowed). On several occasions speakers went beyond their two minutes and continued talking even as the chair, Bill Wood, told them their time was up. One particularly insistent speaker was nearly escorted out by security officers.

The VSPP heard several hours of testimony. My testimony is available online, and focused on the need for the procedures that accompany Diebold’s touchscreen voting machines with a voter verified paper trail to use that paper trail, rather than printouts of electronic ballot images, to conduct the one percent manual tally required to verify the accuracy of the vote counting software. I also raised concerns about the testing proces of Diebold’s voter verified paper trail printer, specifically that Diebold supplied a machine to California for testing that was a different model than the one supplied to the federal government.

The hearing will continue tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. and Chairman Bill Wood indicated that the panel would continue to solicit written testimony from the public on the meeting's agenda items until June 30. The VSPP is not planning to make a recommendation to Secretary of State Bruce McPherson on the Diebold equipment; rather, it is gathering public input through this hearing process and through written testimony that will be presented to the Secretary of State for consideration when he makes his certification decisions.

Those who wish to submit testimony can do so by writing to Bruce McDannold, who staffs the VSPP, at

One thing is for certain -- voting security continues to be an issue of serious concern to many California voters. So many people took time out from their work day to participate in the hearing. Though the hearing was heated and unruly at times, it was inspiring to hear the many passionate comments made by speakers about how much they cherish democracy and their right to vote.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Diebold equipment up for California certification this week

This week, the Secretary of State's Voting Systems and Procedures Panel will hold a hearing to consider certifying a variety of Diebold voting equipment. See the meeting agenda for a complete list of all components up for certification.

However, the equipment up for certification had a variety of problems during testing, according to last Friday's story by Ian Hoffman of the Alameda Newspaper Group. The test reports featured in this article are available on the Secretary of State's Voting Systems Information page (scroll down to the June 16th VSPP meeting to find them). Excerpts from the story are below.


During tests in late April and early May, a chief feature of Diebold's new computerized voting machine — the ability to print out voters' electronic choices so they could be verified and, if needed, recounted — performed so poorly that the state's testing consultant concluded "this version is not ready for use in an election."

Assistant Secretary of State Brad Clark, a former Alameda County registrar, said Thursday that those problems have been fixed, and the Diebold system desired by county elections officials is ready for state consideration.


Diebold's first efforts to secure approval for its AccuVote TSx in California ended in public distrust of all electronic voting and consideration of criminal charges against Diebold. That's partly because Diebold officials persuaded four counties to spend more than $40 million on the TSx — and state elections officials to approve its use in the 2004 presidential primary — before the system made it through lab tests and federal approval.

Former Secretary of State Kevin Shelley rescinded the TSx approval last April, and thousands of those machines now sit in climate-controlled warehouses in San Diego, San Joaquin and Kern counties.

Solano County dropped its Diebold machines and switched to another vendor. Alameda County elections officials want to swap out 4,000 older AccuVote TS machines for the TSx, which is smaller, lighter and equipped with a printer for generating a paper record of a voter's choices for the voter to verify.

Before applying to California for approval, voting-system makers are required by state elections rules to get their machines through lab tests and federal approval, then draw up procedural and training manuals for using them. None of this was done in October 2003, and none of it was done before Diebold applied for approval again in March.

"We're going through the same kind of scenario, not only from Diebold but from the (Secretary of State's) elections division," said Jody Holder, a voting activist who unearthed reports on state tests of the new Diebold machines and e-mails between the state and Diebold through a public-records request. "You can see from the e-mails between them that they're bending over backwards."


During the late April-early May testing, the state's voting systems consultant, Steven Freeman, found that the TSx machines generally were an improvement on Diebold's earlier machines, but still had security flaws. For example, contrary to state election rules, the system was unable to allow different levels of security access to the machine's software and data, so that lower level users can perform basic functions but only administrators can change or add software. The rest of Freeman's discussion of security problems was blacked out by state lawyers.

But the bigger problems were with the paper-trail printer. Freeman reported "several persistent problems with the paper feed" that resulted in a "jam condition." The printer canister kept popping out of place, he noted.

"Attempts were made to tape the canister down but failures still occurred, and someone had to hold the canister in place," his report says.

Keith Carson, president of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, persuaded colleagues to have a public hearing so that Diebold and its critics could debate the merits of its voting system. Carson wants to hear what people say before investing another $5.4 million in a touchscreen voting system that the county purchased three years ago for $12 million.

"The question for me is, to what extent can we guarantee that everyone who participates in the voting process can have confidence that their vote counted," he said. "That to me is going to weigh as heavily as the dollars we have invested in a system that has been constantly in question."

Monday, June 6, 2005

Bev Harris demonstrates computer vote counting risks in Leon County, FLA

Ion Sancho, director of elections for Leon County, Florida, recently invited Bev Harris and her team to attempt to hack his county's voting system. Leon County uses Diebold's optical scan system. It's a paper-based voting system that relies on computer software to tabulate the vote.

Sancho has been an outspoken supporter of paper-based voting systems; Bev Harris' test demonstrates the need to verify computer vote counting software. In an optical scan system, this can be done (and is done in several states, including California) by selecting a subset of the optical scan paper ballots, publicly counting them by hand, then comparing the hand-counted totals to the software-counted totals. In an electronic voting system, this kind of verification can only be accomplished if there is a voter-verified paper audit trail of the electronic ballot that is used during the verification process. Fortunately a number of states are beginning to mandate the paper trail, but most still must implement laws to require routine, public verification of software vote counts.

For more on the test, see Ion Sancho's account and Black Box Voting's report. Excerpts from Saturday's story in the Tallahassee Democrat are below:


All it takes is the right access.

Get that, and an election worker could manipulate voting results in the computers that read paper ballots - without leaving any digital fingerprints.

That was the verdict after Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho invited a team of researchers to look for holes in election software.

The group wasn't able to crack the Diebold system from outside the office. But, at the computer itself, they changed vote tallies, completely unrecorded.

Sancho said it illustrates the need for tight physical security, as well as a paper trail that can verify results, which the Legislature has rejected.

Black Box Voting, the non-profit that ran the test and published a report on the Internet, pointed to the findings as proof of an elections system clearly vulnerable to corruption.

But state officials in charge of overseeing elections pooh-poohed the test process and dismissed the group's report.

"Information on a blog site is not viable or credible," said Jenny Nash, a spokeswoman for the Department of State.

It went like this:

Sancho figured Leon County's security could withstand just about any sort of probing and wanted to prove it.

He went to one of the most skeptical - and vocal - watchdogs of election procedures. Bev Harris, founder of Black Box Voting, had experience with voting machines across the country.

She recruited two computer-security experts and made the trip to Tallahassee from her home in Washington state three times between February and late May.

Leon County is one of 30 counties in Florida that use Diebold optical scanners. Voters darken bubbles on a sheet of paper, sort of like filling in the answers on the SAT, and the scanners read them and add up the numbers.

So the task was simple. Get in, tamper with vote numbers, and get out clean.

They made their first attempts from outside the building. No success.

Then, they sat down at the vote-counting computers, the sort of access to the machines an employee might have. For the crackers, security protocols were no problem, passwords unnecessary.

They simply went around them.

After that, the security experts accomplished two things that should not have been possible.

They made 65,000 votes disappear simply by changing the real memory card - which stores the numbers - for one that had been altered.

And, while the software is supposed to create a record whenever someone makes changes to data stored in the system, it showed no evidence they'd managed to access and change information.

When they were done, they printed the poll tapes. Those are paper records, like cash register tape, that show the official numbers on the memory cards.

Two tapes, with different results. And the only way to tell the fake one?

At the bottom, it read, "Is this real? Or is it Memorex?"

"That was troubling," Sancho said.


In Leon County, access to the machines is strictly controlled, limited to a single employee. The memory cards are kept locked away, and they're tracked by serial number.

Those precautions help prevent any tampering.

"You've got to have security over the individual who's accessing the system," Sancho said. In fact, "you've got to have good security and control over every step of this process."

The trouble is, not every county is as closely run.

In Volusia County, her group has found what they think was memory-card tampering during the 2000 election. More than 16,000 votes for Al Gore vanished.


So what does the Department of State say?

Nash, the spokeswoman, said that the Diebold systems were designed to be used in secure settings, and that, by giving the testers direct access to the computers, Sancho had basically allowed them to bypass security.

In other words, not much of a test.

Except that the security experts were given only as much opportunity as any other election worker would have. Less so, considering that Sancho did not provide them with passwords or any other way to actually get into the programming.

As for the exact vulnerabilities that Harris reported - and Sancho confirmed - Nash said no one from the state could comment, since they hadn't been present at the test.

She added later that Sancho could request help from state certifiers if he had concerns, but had not asked yet.

Friday, June 3, 2005

California receives election money held up during investigation

Kudos to Secretary of State Bruce McPherson for securing $169 million in federal Help America Vote Act funds for California. The Secretary of State issued a news release about the Election Assistance Commission's decision, and Jennifer Coleman's Associated Press article features more details on the EAC's decision yesterday.



The federal agency that oversees election preparations will release nearly $170 million to California that was potentially in jeopardy because of questions over how federal money was spent under former Secretary of State Kevin Shelley.

Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, Shelley's replacement, and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission publicly announced the release of the $169.7 million on Thursday.

The move followed a visit McPherson paid to the commission last month to lobby for the money — California's 2004 share of some $3 billion being sent to states under the Help America Vote Act to upgrade voting equipment and procedures.

Most of the money — $128.6 million — will go to counties to improve voting systems, McPherson said. That includes adding a paper trail to electronic voting systems, as required by a new state law.

More than $31 million will be used for a statewide voter registration database, while $6.8 million will be spent to educate county poll workers, he said.

"Without confidence in the election process, voter turnout suffers," McPherson said at a Capitol news conference. "And when turnout suffers, democracy suffers."

Cook County, IL to implement new paper-based voting system

Cook County, Illinois is the third largest electoral jurisdictions in the nation, home to the city of Chicago, and a longtime user of the punch card voting system. The county is divided into two electoral jurisdictions -- Suburban Cook County and the City of Chicago. This week, both jurisdictions announced they plan to replace their punch card voting system with Sequoia's paper-based, optical scan voting system and one touchscreen per polling place with a voter-verified paper trail printer attached. Under Illinois law, any electronic balloting must be accompanied by a voter-verified paper audit trail.

This decision is another major victory for advocates of election verification. Cook County could have moved to all-electronic voting, but instead has chosen to rely primarlily on an improved paper-based voting system. This decision will save Cook County a considerable amount of money. Having one touchscreen per polling place ensures Cook County is in compliance with the Help America Vote Act. Hopefully more jurisdictions will follow Cook County's lead.

Regarding the City of Chicago's decision, the Chicago Sun-Times reported Chicago Board of Elections chairman Langdon Neal saying that while "the old punch-card system is gone," voters will still rely upon "a paper-based system" to vote.

Cook County Clerk David Orr has published a summary of the Merits of Optical Scan Voting on the Cook County web site, and earlier in the week, Government Technology reported on Suburban Cook County's decision.



Suburban Cook County voters will cast ballots in future elections by marking their choices with a pencil or pen instead of punching out chads with a stylus, Cook County Clerk David Orr announced Thursday.

Orr will recommend the county use federal grants to purchase the dual system for suburban Cook County voters from Sequoia Voting Systems -- based in Oakland, Ca. -- for approximately $23.8 million (includes capital costs with a five-year maintenance agreement). Sequoia submitted the lowest bid among three other finalists: Diebold Election Systems of North Canton, Ohio; Election Systems and Software (ES&S) of Omaha, Neb.; and Hart Intercivic of Austin, Texas.

"Optical scan voting is intuitive and easy for voters to use," said Orr, whose office has scrutinized various voting systems for the past two years. "Currently, more voters cast ballots using optical scan equipment than on any other system in the country. Optical scan voting is accurate, secure and the most affordable system on the market."