Published on Monday, April 26, 2004 by Reuters
California Considers Suspending Electronic Voting
by Elinor Mills Abreu
SAN FRANCISCO - California's top election official will cast an opinion later this week that could have a major impact on how Americans vote in the future and how quickly they embrace new balloting technology.
California, home to the cutting-edge innovations of Silicon Valley, was expected to expand the use of new touch-screen electronic voting machines for the 2004 presidential election.
Yet last week a state panel looking into glitches in electronic voting machines from a Diebold Inc. subsidiary recommended that California not use one of the firm's systems. By Friday, California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley could decide to scrap all electronic voting for now.
"We may have nostalgia for the hanging chads," said Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University. The author of the first report critical of touch-screen voting system security, Rubin was referring to the bits of paper associated with the aging system of punch-card ballots used in the contested 2000 presidential election.
Some experts fear that electronic voting will bring potential problems in the November election with no way to recount ballots accurately.
"If there is any question about who wins an election, there will be no way with most of these electronic systems to go back and determine the original voter intent," said Linda Franz of Citizens for Voting Integrity in Washington state.
The main problem is that current touch-screen machines do not provide a paper ballot and can not accurately be audited, said Bev Harris, author of "Black Box Voting: Ballot-Tampering in the 21st Century."
Optical-scan machines in which computers read ballots with filled-in bubbles are more reliable because the paper ballot can be used in a recount, she said.
"We have to solve the problem before the fall election," Harris said. "Until we do, democracy is in clear and present danger because we've just dropped the checks and balances."
During the 2000 presidential election, 16,000 negative or minus votes temporarily showed up for Al Gore in Volusia County, Florida, on Diebold optical-scan voting machines, prompting the TV networks to prematurely call the election for George W. Bush, Harris said.
Diebold has expressed disappointment over the California regulatory panel's recommendation that the state no longer use certain Diebold electronic voting equipment and said security problems have been addressed.
Neither punch-card nor voter lever machines create a receipt, said Diebold spokesman David Bear, although touch-screens connected to printers can create a hard copy of ballots for audits. Critics argue that the print-out could contain software errors and thus not be an accurate reflection of the vote.
"The biggest threat is insider manipulation," said Doug Jones, a University of Iowa computer science professor who has examined voting machines in Iowa for a decade. "It's very easy when you break into the computer system to erase your tracks."
"I can't deny that a conspiracy could occur," said Bear. "The likelihood of that occurring is much less likely than other kinds of disruptions."
California's Shelley has already mandated that all of the state's electronic voting machines have a paper trail by 2006. With such a system, voters should be able to confirm their votes by looking at a paper ballot, just as bank customers get receipts from automatic teller machines.
On Wednesday, his advisory panel that already reviewed the Diebold machines will make a recommendation on whether to suspend the use of all electronic voting in 2004.
"Are they secure?" one of the eight panel members told Reuters on Monday. "Are we at a point where we have enough time to adequately continue using them, or do we need to take a step back for an election and sort of look at the panorama of everything and explore all the problems and fix them?"
Shelley is expected to announce his decision on Thursday or Friday as the deadline to decertify machines before the November election is May 2. In the past the Democrat has spoken in favor of electronic voting but his November requirement on phasing in paper trail requirements suggests he is concerned about maintaining the integrity of such systems as they become more widespread.
Several bills in the U.S. Congress that would require a voter-verifiable paper ballot are also now pending.
© Copyright Reuters 2004.