CA: Secretary of state casts doubt on future of electronic voting

December 1, 2007

     By John WildermuthThe San Francisco Chronicle
December 2nd, 2007
 

Electronic voting systems used throughout California still aren't good enough to be trusted with the state's elections, Secretary of State Debra Bowen said Saturday.

While Bowen has been putting tough restrictions and new security requirements on the use of the touch screen machines, she admitted having doubts as to whether the electronic voting systems will ever meet the standards she believes are needed in California.

"It's a real challenge," she said at a San Francisco airport conference on voting and elections. "I don't rule out the ingenuity of some computer science student now in the eighth grade," but what's available now isn't as transparent or auditable as the paper ballot systems they replaced.

Earlier this year, Bowen put together a top-to-bottom review of voting systems used in the state and found that most of the voting machines were vulnerable to hackers looking to change results or cause mischief with the systems.

Despite loud howls from county voting officials, Bowen decertified almost all the touch screen systems used in California, allowing only their most limited use.

"When the government finds a car is unsafe, it orders a recall," she said. "Here we're talking about systems used to cast and tally votes, the most basic tool of democracy."

In the Bay Area, Santa Clara and Napa counties found themselves forced to scramble to replace their electronic voting systems. San Mateo County uses the Hart eSlate system, a touch screen system Bowen said is relatively safe from hackers.
The secretary admitted that she wants to see California's counties use optical scan systems in their polling places, especially because most of them already use the systems to count mail ballots.

Optical scan systems, where voters mark their choices on a paper ballot that then gets inserted into a tallying machine, "are old and boring, but cheap and reliable," Bowen said, because the paper ballots make it easy to recount the ballots and ensure the accuracy of the vote.

"I want to make sure the votes are secure, auditable and transparent and that every vote is counted as it was cast," she said.

Although Bowen's review of the voting systems affected only California, it had a nationwide impact, because the same systems are used in many other states.

The review "was like a big rock tossed in a pond, which continues to ripple across the nation," said Doug Chapin of Electonline.org, the nonpartisan group that sponsored the conference.

While Bowen hoped her decision on the voting machines would allow both election officials and voters "to stop worrying about how to cast our votes," that hasn't happened.

Battles continue across the voting landscape, with election officials, voting machine manufacturers and various citizen activists all arguing over the direction the nation's voting rules should take.

"The secretary of state has a strategic plan, and I disagree with it," Steven Weir, Contra Costa County's registrar, told the conference. "Her plan is to debase confidence in our voting system," and Bowen has excluded local election officials from decisions that affect them greatly.
Local election officials are under increasing scrutiny, much of it from people "looking to give themselves a partisan advantage, fair or not," Weir added.

"No election system is ever good enough for the candidate who loses the election," said John Lindback, director of the elections division for the Oregon secretary of state. Changes like the ranked choice voting system used in San Francisco are often pushed by people who "didn't like who won the last election or the last 10 elections" and are disguising them as election reform.

But many of the people most concerned about voting machines and election accuracy "are not conspiracy theory nutballs," said Pamela Smith of VerifiedVoting.org, which looks at voting problems across the nation. Some of the most passionate advocates for change are computer scientists concerned that election officials put too much trust in systems that experts know are all too fallible.

"It's critical to ratchet down the attack-defense mode" between election officials and voting activists to reach their joint goal of making elections work, she said.

At least one concern of the electronic voting opponents seems to be overblown, though. There has been no record of anyone hacking into a voting machine to change election results and only a handful of cases of any type of election fraud in the country, said Mike Slater of Project Vote, a nonpartisan voter registration group.

Between 2002 and 2005, only 24 people were convicted of voting fraud in the entire nation, and most of them mistakenly thought they were eligible, he said.

"It's hard to study election fraud in America because there's not much of it," said Thad Hall, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Utah. "People make stupid mistakes, but fraud is a very different beast."

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