E-voting transformations on the way, experts say

Rules requiring independent audit mechanisms for electronic-voting machines are likely coming, but the changes won’t happen overnight, a group of advocates said Friday.

More than 18,000 undervotes in a still-disputed Florida congressional election from November show the need for independent audit mechanisms, said panelists at an event sponsored by several advocacy groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Common Cause.

“We’re at this point … where I believe there’s a consensus that we need to do something,” said Trey Grayson, secretary of state in Kentucky. “However, the consensus is ahead of the solution.”

All but one of Kentucky’s counties use e-voting machines without paper trails, and many local elections officials are opposed to making big changes, Grayson said. Kentucky has used e-voting machines since the 1980s, and only recently have some state residents questioned their security and reliability, he added.

While many e-voting security critics have called for printouts to back up e-voting results, printers currently in use have encountered problems in recent elections, said Courtenay Strickland-Bhatia, president and chief executive of the Verified Voting Foundation. Some printers have jammed, and with some e-voting machines printouts weren’t easily accessible for voters who wanted to double-check their votes, she said.

But e-voting machines need audit mechanisms and a “transparent” design that allows voters to understand how votes are counted, she added. Without an audit mechanism, “it simply is not possible to know if a problem has happened” in an e-voting machine, she said.

Beyond audit mechanisms, states need to require random audits of machines, added Lawrence Norden, an e-voting security researcher and associate counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. While 27 states currently require paper-trail mechanisms along with e-voting machines, only 11 states require voting officials to conduct audits matching the electronic results with the paper ones.

No e-voting machine vendors were represented at the event. In November, Michael Kerr, director of the Election Technology Council at the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), said the election generally went smoothly. The ITAA, a trade group that represents e-voting machine vendors, expects voters to adjust to the new systems that many states adopted after paper ballot problems in the 2000 presidential election, he said.

E-voting vendors will build machines that include audit trails if that’s what customers want, Kerr said in December, after the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) approved a testing and certification program for electronic-voting systems.

Also in December, the Technical Guidelines Development Committee, an advisory board to the EAC, voted to draft requirements for independently verifiable voting records to be used with e-voting machines.

But Thomas Hicks, a staffer with the U.S. House of Representatives Administration Committee, cautioned that it will be difficult to make wholesale changes in e-voting requirements in time for the 2008 presidential election. A more realistic goal would be audit mechanisms required by 2010 or 2011, he said.

Hicks said he expects to see paper-trail audit legislation introduced in the next two years. Lawmakers may also introduce a bill that would allow independent inspectors to see the source code of e-voting software, he said. Last month, a Florida judge rejected the request of Democratic House candidate Christine Jennings to inspect the source code of machines on which more than 18,000 people who voted in other races failed to cast a ballot in the House race. Jennings lost by 369 votes.

“If there was a car accident, [investigators] would want to look at the car itself to see what happened,” Hicks said. “They wouldn’t look to Ford or Toyota to say, ‘This is what actually caused it’.”

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