Thursday, December 1, 2005

More coverage of the Secretary of State's Voting Systems Summit

Today's Oakland Tribune features an article by Ian Hoffman on this week's voting system summit in Sacramento hosted by Secretary of State Bruce McPherson. Excerpts are below.


Uncertainty clouds future of e-vote tests

Despite movement toward new standards for machines,

change may be years away

For 11 years, most states have relied on voting systems tested to minimal federal standards, the results withheld from public scrutiny and given the green light by a nongovernmental agency working on a shoestring budget.

The era of approving tools of democracy on the cheap is coming to an end, and judging by talk at a national gathering of voting experts here this week, few will be sorry to see it go.

Carnegie Mellon University computer expert Michael Shamos, a state voting-systems certification official for Pennsylvania, is one of the staunchest advocates for new, fully computerized electronic voting systems.

But judging by what he has seen emerge from secretive, private labs known as "independent testing authorities" and approved by the National Association of State Elections Directors, Shamos said, "There's stuff in there that's so horrible, I can't understand it."

He found a quarter of the voting systems presented to Pennsylvania unsuitable for elections, with such "glaring failures" as an inability to tally votes correctly. A recent study led by the University of Maryland showed all of six voting systems tested did not record 3 to 4 percent of the votes. What does pass state muster often can break down.

"I have good reason to believe that 10 percent of systems are failing on Election Day. That's an unbelievable number," Shamos told an assemblage of voting-system makers, elections officials and scientists. "Why are we not in an uproar about the failure of (touch-screen voting) systems?"


Vendors can spend several hundred thousand dollars getting a state's OK. Many states rely on the national testing alone and start buying approved voting systems almost immediately. Florida and Georgia rely almost exclusively on their own testing.

California uses both the national testing and its own, which under McPherson has grown in rigor.

His office now requires every voting-system maker to supply dozens of machines for a massive, mock election to ferret out manufacturing or reliability problems. McPherson also has agreed to let a computer expert try hacking into a Diebold system, and state officials are weighing whether to require the same kind of security testing for all voting systems.

Diebold and some local elections officials are frustrated that it has taken more than two years to get the firm's latest touch-screen approved for sale and use in California.

Partly because of the testing and Diebold's own delays, a quarter of California's counties, including Alameda, Marin and San Joaquin, probably will miss Jan. 1 federal and state deadlines for offering new, handicapped-accessible voting machines with a paper record. Local elections officials want several months of lead time getting used to the new machines before the June primary.

"He's risking another huge meltdown for counties," said Los Angeles County Registrar Conny McCormack, head of the state association of local elections officials. "It's a setup for failure."

But the testing has disclosed security holes, as well as a bug that caused one in five Diebold touch screens to crash if a voter slid a finger on the screen, and forced Diebold to fix frequent paper jams in a printer for ballot records. Fixing the "sliding finger" bug alone cost the firm at least $250,000.

McPherson said this week that deadlines will have to take a back seat to making sure voting systems are secure, accurate and reliable.

"There is no compromise where election integrity is concerned," he said. "I cannot in good conscience certify systems that are not fully tested. This is a one-time show, and we're going to do it carefully."

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