US voters will go to the polls in November using electronic voting machines which cannot be verified, a computer scientist warned yesterday.
David Dill, of Stanford University, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Seattle, that 1,600 technologists and 53 elected officials had joined his crusade for a "paper trail" so that electronic voting machines could be checked.
In an election for a seat in the Florida house of representatives last month, touch-screen machines recorded 127 blank ballots. The race was won by 12 votes. No recount was possible because there was nothing to recount.
The system is in crisis. A quarter of the American public are voting on machines where there's very little protection of their votes. I don't think there's any reason to trust these machines.
David Dill, of Stanford University
In an election in Indiana last year, an electronic system recorded more than 144,000 votes in an election with fewer than 19,000 registered voters.
The system is set for its first significant test in just over two weeks when several states will use the machines for both the Democratic primaries and for several local votes held on the same day. These states include Georgia, Ohio, California and Maryland. San Diego in California has bought more than 10,000 machines, while the state of Maryland has spent $55m on 16,000 machines for its voters.
"The system is in crisis," Professor Dill said. "A quarter of the American public are voting on machines where there's very little protection of their votes. I don't think there's any reason to trust these machines."
There have also been criticisms of the company which won the contract to supply the machines, Diebold Inc. It has been accused of secrecy, arrogance and political bias. Diebold's chief executive, Walden O'Dell, held a political fundraiser for President Bush last year.
Federal funds have been pledged to states to update their voting equipment after the bitterly contested presidential election of 2000. But there have been many problems with electronic machines.
The criticisms center on three issues: the machines offer no record of how a vote was cast - so no prospect of a repeat of the "hanging chad" fiasco of the 2000 election; the accuracy with which they record votes has been called into question; and they could be vulnerable to computer hackers.
Proponents of the machines say they prohibit voting for more candidates than allowed and they give voters the opportunity to go back and change a vote.
"If the machine silently loses or changes the vote, the voter has no clue what has happened," said Prof Dill. "If you have computers recording votes or counting votes, then you have to do manual recounts with sufficient frequency that machine errors are likely to be caught."
A bill has been introduced requiring that digital voting machines leave a paper trail and that their software be available for public inspection.
A test of the machines in Maryland found the machines to be vulnerable. A computer security firm found it easy to cast multiple votes and override the machines' vote-recording mechanisms.
But the vulnerabilities extended to more than computer science: Maryland's 16,000 machines all had identical locks for two sensitive mechanisms. The hackers found that they would have been able to have copies of the keys for these locks cut at a locksmith, although ultimately they found it easier simply to pick the locks. It reportedly took less than 10 seconds.
Concerns over the electronic voting machines follow the decision by the US government to abandon plans to allow US citizens overseas to vote on the internet in the wake of concerns that their votes too could be vulnerable to fraud.
The internet voting system, was scrapped at the beginning of the month in the light of an investigation by four Pentagon appointed computer security experts.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004