High-tech voting systems need quick fixes if they are to be used in the November election, according to a report released yesterday by a coalition of civil rights groups and computer security experts.
The report, by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, lays out steps that state election officials should take in coming weeks to ensure that touch-screen voting machines perform as they should and merit voter confidence.
The recommendations include independent security review of machines and their software and procedures for monitoring election glitches. The report concludes, "If implemented by those jurisdictions within the obvious constraints of time and resources, these recommendations can markedly improve confidence" that voting systems will function properly.
Electronic voting machines will be used by nearly a third of the nation's voters in November. But they have come under attack by computer security experts, who have found them vulnerable to tampering and mischief. California's secretary of state, Kevin Shelley, has prohibited the use of machines from Diebold Election Systems in four counties for the November election, and has set rigorous standards for certification for machines in 10 other counties.
A federal election official applauded the report. DeForest B. Soaries Jr., chairman of the United States Election Assistance Commission, announced yesterday that he would study ways for the report's recommendations to be incorporated into the work of his commission with local election officials.
"These recommendations represent important options that address the nation's need for strategies to enhance security and public confidence in the use of electronic voting systems," he said in a statement accompanying the release of the report.
David Bear, a spokesman for Diebold, said that the recommendations, if carried out, will simply prove that the technology is trustworthy. "Some of these things have been done" by states like Maryland and Georgia, he said, adding that "they've shown that electronic voting is safe, secure and accurate."
But Aviel D. Rubin, a computer security expert at Johns Hopkins University who consulted with the authors of the report and endorsed its conclusions, said the machines have a long way to go before they can be considered reliable. "If your child was going to drink and drive no matter what you did," he said, carrying out the recommendations of the report "would be like convincing them to wear a seatbelt."
A researcher who uncovered vulnerabilities in equipment from Diebold said the new report was a step forward. Michael Wertheimer, who led an exercise in which Diebold machines were hacked with trivial ease, said the report was a milestone because it declared a truce between most computer security experts and election officials over voting risks. "This way, everybody is pulling the boat in the same direction," he said.
Another critic took a more dour view, however. Rebecca Mercuri, a technology consultant who has long warned of problems with high-tech voting, said in an interview that "adding more technologists, however well-intentioned those technologists may be, will not solve the problem of vanishing votes and vulnerable systems."
She added, "I don't see how we're going to solve the problem by November."
Instead of depending on touch-screen machines, she said, election officials should make absentee ballots available.
The report stopped short of demanding that states require that voting machines print a voter-verifiable receipt, which many experts have said will be necessary to provide the full measure of trust on high-tech voting but which would be almost impossible for states to put in place by November.
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