The Past and Future Fraud

Yes, punch-card voting machines are error-prone. The touch-screen systems planned to replace them may be just as bad.

In California, voters in several counties will soon use these touch-screen machines in a high-stakes election -- either an October gubernatorial recall or a March primary that includes a rescheduled recall. And, Jones predicts, there will be many errors. The system is a "black box," with proprietary computer code hidden from the public, a circumstance rife with risk of errors and tampering. California voting-rights activists are agitating for a revision of the Diebold system that would produce a paper receipt, so that votes can be re-counted by hand in case there are challenges.

Kim Alexander, the voter-rights advocate, recently sat on an "ad-hoc touch-screen task force" set up by Secretary of State Kevin Shelley to study this problem. The committee's recommendations, published in July, are essentially a wish list asking for better testing of the touch-screen systems, greater testing documentation, and permanent paper printouts documenting every vote. Still, Alexander expresses concern that new paper-documented systems won't be added in time. And ironically, the court's decision to postpone the recall election to March, when the additional touch-screens are supposed to be in place, increases the imperative that the elections run smoothly, with as little untested technology or procedure as possible.

Theoretically, this could mean delaying the creation and implementation of a system for generating a paper trail and allowing a manual verification of vote-counting accuracy.

"Without that kind of audit trail, we have no ability to verify accuracy of touch-screen totals in any reasonable way," Alexander says.

This issue may not sound quite as interesting as The Terminator and the Gray Man, Cruz "Twins" Bustamante and Gary Coleman. But if Californians fail to bring their voting technology into the 21st century, the potential will remain for a spectacle even more interesting than today's recall campaign: a California replay of the 2000 Florida vote-count fiasco.

As has been the case for decades, the salient points in the debate over voting systems are being lost amid partisan yelling.

California and other parts of the country have been using inaccurate, easily-tampered-with punch-card voting systems. The touch-screen machines slated to replace them contain significant faults. Secretary of State Kevin Shelley may go ahead and approve these new systems anyway. And no one in a position of power seems to be even discussing -- much less implementing -- the reforms necessary to make elections as fair as possible.

Real voting reform would involve new federal requirements including, among other things, a rule forcing voting-equipment firms to reveal vote-counting computer source code to the public. Without access to this code, critics are unable to verify claims that a system may be subject to tampering or systematic errors. Government agencies, unable to point out hackable loopholes and code bugs, cannot demand that these defects be repaired.

Currently, the only piece of evidence U.S. voting districts have as to the security of the Diebold system is the company's claim that the current version does not contain the defects identified by Johns Hopkins researchers. In the real world of computer security technology, corporate clients seeking secure transactions and database systems would not be satisfied with such a claim. Yet U.S. regulators appear to be.

All voting systems should be required to leave a hard-copy audit trail so votes can be accurately re-counted. Anti-vote-tampering technology should approach present-day computer security standards ubiquitous in industries such as banking, database services, online retail, and newspaper publishing.

In the case of touch-screen voting, it's a simple matter of outfitting the machines with printers, then tallying the printed receipt as the official record of a citizen's vote. Warren Slocum, chief elections officer for San Mateo County, is so disappointed with the Diebold touch-screen machines he's commissioned a custom machine that shoots a printed record back to the voter through a mail tube. The voter reviews the receipt, then puts it in another tube, whereupon it becomes an official record.

"Until registrars stand up and demand a paper trail, it is unlikely that voting-machine companies will build and market any type of verifiable voting system," Slocum says in a Sunday post to his personal Web log.

Until voters themselves stand up and demand an end to the error-prone hacker's dreamland that is the U.S. election system, bureaucrats will remain satisfied with the anti-democratic status quo.

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