Critics call for e-voting paper trail

Critics of electronic-voting machines called on the U.S. government to require a voting paper trail, but e-voting machine vendors disagreed on whether vote result printouts are needed, at a hearing before the U.S. Election Assistance Commission Wednesday.

Outside the Washington, D.C., hearing, a representative of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) interrupted a press conference staged by groups questioning the security of electronic voting.

Members of and other groups waved signs saying “Show my vote counted” and “Computer ate Dady’s (sic) vote” and called for a verified paper trail, but Jim Dixon, vice-president of the AAPD, said he was able to vote without assistance for the first time this year because of an e-voting machine. Dixon, who is blind, said he’s had poll workers in the past question who he wanted to vote for and tell him they were too busy to help him get through the whole ballot.

“A secret ballot delayed is a secret ballot denied,” Dixon said, after taking over the lectern at the press conference.

But speakers from and some computer scientists at the commission hearing said e-voting machine vendors are basically asking the U.S. public to trust that their machines are secure and work correctly.The commission, created by the U.S. Congress in the Help America Vote Act of 2002, has responsibility for administering voluntary elections guidelines and for testing and certifying election equipment.

The U.S. government should demand all e-voting machines used in the November election issue printouts that voters can check and that election officials can use in recounts, said Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., and co-author of a February paper critiquing the security of Diebold Inc.’s e-voting machines. “There’s no way to publicly count the vote. The counting is going on inside the computer.”

Representatives of e-voting machine vendors disagreed on whether the U.S. government should require a verified paper trail. Kevin Chung, chief executive officer of Avante International Technology Inc., agreed with calls for voter-verified printouts, but representatives of Election Systems & Software Inc. and Sequoia Voting Systems questioned the need for paper backups.

Printouts would “clearly add cost and complexity” to an already complex process, said William Welsh II, a board member of Election Systems & Software. Welsh and Britain Williams, a professor emeritus of computer science at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, said it would be impossible for states to purchase and test printing machines before November’s presidential election. The shift to a verified paper trail could take four to six years, but that shouldn’t stop states from using e-voting machines, Williams said.

“In the short term, we’re going to have to dance with the one who brought us,” he said.

For this year’s election, Williams instead recommended the commission consider a e-voting computer code library, that could be checked against code used in machines in the field to prevent tampering. He also recommended extensive training on e-voting machines for some poll workers.

E-voting machine vendors told the commission their products have greatly reduced undervoting and overvoting, the problems that plagued Florida in the 2000 presidential election, and they’ve seen no evidence of security problems in their machines. E-voting machines make voting more accessible to people with all kinds of disabilities, to the elderly and to people who can’t read or speak English, said Mark Radke, director of marketing for Diebold Election Systems.

Diebold has encountered no security problems in the 55,600 machines installed in Georgia and Maryland, Radke said. “That’s proof of performance that’s highly irrefutable,” he said.

But Rubin and others questioned if that record will hold up. “What troubles me is the irregularities we’ve never heard about … that we’ll never hear about,” said Representative Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat who has sponsored legislation to require a paper copies with e-voting machines. Diebold’s Radke and the other vendors faced pointed questions from commission chairman DeForest Soaries. Soaries questioned a January Diebold press release saying the company’s e-voting system in Maryland was eight times more accurate than other types of balloting. “When you talk about accuracy, you haven’t taken into account the possibility of tampering?” Soaries asked.

Diebold did not consider tampering, Radke answered. “But we think it’s secure,” he added.

Soaries questioned what Diebold has learned from criticism it received after its chief executive officer, Wally O’Dell, sent out fund-raising letters for the Republican in Ohio. O’Dell has stopped fund-raising efforts for Republicans, Radke said. “You have no idea how many lessons we’ve learned,” Radke said.

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