Electronic voting is a touchy issue

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By Libby Cluett

Even before early voting began, Homer Simpson foreshadowed problems with electronic touch-screen voting machines.

“Voting Machines Are Flipping Votes Just Like The Simpsons Predicted,” an article posted on www.collegeotr.com, citing a clip of a “The Simpsons” episode, leaked online earlier in the month, that shows Homer Simpson trying to vote for Democratic candidate Barack Obama.

Every time he touches the “Obama” button on what he calls the “electronic voting dealie,” it registers votes for Republican candidate John McCain. His frustration grows as he tells the machine “time for a change,” and mashes the Obama button harder. The voting machine then sucks him inside, as Homer yells, “Hey this machine is rigged … This doesn't happen in America, maybe Ohio, but not in America.”

If electronic vote switching doesn't happen in America, why are there so many reports of it, including two in Palo Pinto County?

Two Palo Pinto County residents reported touch-screen voting machine irregularities last week were added to a growing discussion around the county, state, nation and world on the topic of vote flipping or switching.

Should voters be concerned about the veracity of electronic voting technology that has no paper trail?

Do voters HAVA say?

Texans cast their votes by one of three methods – paper ballot, an optical scan system or Direct Record Electronic system. The Secretary of State approved three DRE machines – the Hart eSlate, Election Systems & Software iVotronic and Premier's Accu-Vote TS R6.

The DRE machines are intended to help counties comply with the 2002 Help America Vote Act. The federal act, also called HAVA, established a program to provide funds to states to replace punch card voting systems with improved voting equipment and to provide election standards as well as training for poll workers and election officials across the country.

A year-old headline from www.opednews.com reads, “US to NY: You Gotta HAVA Faulty Voting Machine.” The article describes a U.S. District Court case, in which a Department of Justice attorney successfully argued, “that even though no electronic voting systems exist that meet NY's voting technology standards, NY must use the faulty technology.”

“We had a perfectly good optical scan machine,” Palo Pinto County Judge Mike Smiddy said of voting machines the county previously used for elections, “but it did not qualify [for HAVA compliance].”

Smiddy said the county started implementing the HAVA-compliant iVotronic voting machines “at about the time I came into office.” He was sworn into office in September 2005.

The electronic touch-screen machine reads pressure from a voter's finger and selects a corresponding vote. For residents who vote by mail, the county uses an optical scan voting system. This system enables voters to mark their choices on pre-printed ballots and an ES&S M100 machine scans each ballot, automatically computing the totals for each candidate or issue.

While the county received funding to help put electronic voting in place, Smiddy cited this as a “federal and state mandate that everybody go to electronic voting [in] reaction to punch card ballots in Florida.”

In the 2000 presidential election, almost two million ballots were reportedly disqualified because they registered multiple votes - “overvoting” - or no votes - “undervoting” - when run through vote-counting machines.

In response to the election confusion, “hanging chads” and “dimpled ballots,” the U.S. Congress passed HAVA, which was signed into law by President Bush in October 2002.

According to County Auditor Sharon Allen, Palo Pinto County applied for four of six possible HAVA grants. Two of these - the Voting System Accessibility grant of $60,000 and the General HAVA Compliance grant of $199,913.65 - aided the county's original purchase of electronic voting machines for $238,431.

Allen said this included purchasing 25 HAVA compliant units, 40 regular units, storage carts, associated software, printers, scanners, training, computer system and various other accessories.

“In addition to that original purchase, we have bought a storage trailer, and outfitted it, and we have paid for annual maintenance,” she added.

Past county technology

Smiddy served on the county's resolution board during elections “at least before 1992,” beginning when the county started using optical scan voting machines. He said the board was comprised of two additional people - a Republican representative and a Democratic representative. Although they had “minor problems” with the machines, including “some occasional mechanical problems,” he said they did not have issues with accuracy.

Overvoting - where a voter marks more than one candidate in a race - was one concern regarding past voting machines, but Smiddy maintains that the optical scan machine would kick out overvotes, which he said were easy to resolve.

“I never remember having a disagreement over voter intent at all. We very rarely had problems where we couldn't tell what a voter intended,” he said. “We maybe had 100 ballots [in a general election] with problems. But it was real easy to resolve - you could tell voters intent if the machine spit out the ballot.”

According to the county clerk's office, Palo Pinto still uses its optical scan machines, but only for residents who request ballots by mail.

A 2007 article in the Huffington Post suggested “optical scan machines be used nationwide, if supplemented by equipment to allow voters with disabilities to vote privately.”

How DREs work

Touch-screen voting machines require calibration, which establishes the relationship between pressure from a voter's finger and a spot or “box” on the touch screen. Similar to how an ATM machine issues money in specific increments, the touch screen voting machines should match an individual's vote. Before each election, all Texas voting machines must be recalibrated and tested on all ballot variables.

Some say the machines can go out of calibration if moved or when they are delivered to a polling location, however ES&S spokesman Ken Fields from Fleishman-Hillard maintains that any miscalibration in a machine “will be evident” and “doesn't come and go.”

Ashley Burton of the Secretary of State's office reported, “We have only received a handful of isolated complaints from voters regarding situations that, to our knowledge, could not be recreated.”

Burton added that each voting system in Texas must be thoroughly tested before every election in which they are to be used. Information regarding these testing procedures are included in an advisory at: http://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/laws/advisory2008-09.shtml.

As of Thursday afternoon, Burton said they have not received any voting machine reports from Palo Pinto County from early voting or from the March primary election.

However, since early voting began Oct. 20 there have been numerous reports dotting the nation - some similar to the two cases reported to the Index - in which voters said their straight-party Democratic votes turned up as straight-party Republican votes.

Many of these reports are sporadic and not all reports of voting machine irregularities resulted in permanent removal of machines. The reason - administrators could not replicate the situation voters reported.

“Election officials often say they don't have to take a machine out of service if they can't replicate the voter's problem on the machine,” said Kim Zetter, a senior reporter at Wired News. “But flaws in computers can result in erratic symptoms that won't happen with every voter. It may require a specific sequence of events for a problem to manifest, and if officials don't repeat what the voter did exactly, they may not have the same result.”

When asked if the Texas Secretary of State has provisions for a machine with occasional and irregular issues, Burton replied, “If a local election official determines there is a machine error, the machine should be pulled from the area and they should report that to our office. Depending on the nature of the problem, additional testing may be considered.”

She added that there is a way to check the machines for proper calibration and maintenance as “part of the Logic and Accuracy test.”

Zetter has written about electronic voting issues “since 2003 when the first report came out from computer scientists who obtained source code for the Diebold machines and found numerous security flaws in it,” she told the Index.

When the company's code showed up on the Internet in 2003, researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Rice University examined the code and concluded the voting system was “unsuitable for use in a general election.”

They further asserted, “Any paperless electronic voting system might suffer similar flaws, despite any 'certification' it could have otherwise received. We suggest that the best solutions are voting systems having a 'voter-verifiable audit trail,' where a computerized voting system might print a paper ballot that can be read and verified by the voter.”

“Russ Feingold has been trying since 2003 to pass legislation in Congress that would require all voting machines in the country to produce a paper trail. The legislation has failed for a number of reasons, not just the accessibility issue. Even when the legislation is passed, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology will be tasked with coming up with the best solution for a paper trail, which could take several years,” Zetter said.

“Sadly, in Texas there is no voter-verifiable paper record of the vote,” stated Ellen Theisen, Co-Director of www.VotersUnite.Org, a non-partisan national grassroots elections resource.

Fields said the ES&S makes a machine with a paper printout that shows voters how they have voted.

Burton maintained that no Texas voting machines provide a Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail. “Our office has previously examined options that would provide a VVPAT, but we were not satisfied that the options available would preserve the secrecy of the ballot,” she said.

“Other states, however, have not needed a federal law to pass their own legislation requiring a paper trail in the meantime,” asserted Zetter. “There's really no good reason for counties not to have machines that produce a paper trail.”

Questions linger

For several years many have expressed concerns over HAVA-compliant DRE voting machines. Among the concerns are the DRE's lack of a tangible record, the possibility for tampering and overall security.

A February 2004 article in “Information Week” posed that, “A paper ballot … is a tangible physical object which can be indelibly marked. A computer byte, however, can be easily altered with no trace of its original marking.”

In June 2006, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told “Rolling Stone” Magazine that he wondered how 2004 election exit polls, predicting an overwhelming victory for John Kerry, “had gotten it so wrong. By midnight, the official tallies showed a decisive lead for George Bush - and the next day, lacking enough legal evidence to contest the results, Kerry conceded.”

In his interview, Kennedy cited specific concerns about DREs used during the 2004 general election.

“In New Mexico, which was decided by 5,988 votes, malfunctioning machines mysteriously failed to properly register a presidential vote on more than 20,000 ballots. Nationwide, according to the federal commission charged with implementing election reforms, as many as 1 million ballots were spoiled by faulty voting equipment - roughly one for every 100 cast.”

“Why should the most important events in our democratic life (elections) be the subject of such benign neglect and lack of any interest in their security?” queried authors of one study on election irregularity during the 2004 general election in Snohomish County, Wash.

In the study, attorney Paul R. Lehto and Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman compared the county's parallel voting technologies - touch-screen voting machines used on election day to optically scanned paper ballots used for absentee and provisional voting.

One of their findings describes what at least two voters in Palo Pinto County and many throughout the nation recently experienced - “numerous persons reported that touch screens would appear pre-voted, or else would select the Republican box when the Democratic candidate's box was pressed either with a finger or the stylus provided.”

In support of DREs

After overseeing six presidential elections in Dallas County, Elections Administrator Bruce Sherbet has experienced technology peaks and valleys. However, for this election he said, “Voting technology is now better than ever before mostly because the human factor has been taken out of the process.”

What he likes about the new voting machine technology is that the iVotronic “stores votes in three different independent areas.”

Dallas County uses 500-700 electronic touch-screen voting machines - the same type as Palo Pinto County - only used during early voting. For election day, Sherbet employees optical scan machines.

So far, Dallas County has had over 370,000 voters at 26 polling sites, with no machines producing a problem. However, Sherbet said one voter reported a problem, which started his protocol - someone assisting the voter to see if they can replicate the reported problem, taking the machine out of service so a technician can check the machine's calibration and can check to see if they can replicate what the voter said happened.

“We checked [the machine with the reported problem] thoroughly to make sure there wasn't a problem and put it back in use,” he said. “We err on the side of the voter if a voter reports a problem to us and show us what they say [the machine] is doing.”

The imperfect paper trail

“Just having a paper trail doesn't solve the transparency problem with these machines if election officials don't look at the paper trail,” warned Zetter. “That's why states need to also pass a law that requires all counties to conduct a mandatory manual audit of at least 1 percent of votes after every election. California and a number of other states have this law. This means that election officials would have to take 1 percent of the paper trails and compare them against the digital votes coming from the same machines to ensure that they match. In this way, they can uncover possible problems with the machines and investigate further if needed.”

Sherbet said that having a printer hook up, which provides the paper audit trail, is “not an end-all-be-all” solution and has its problems. He explained that when a printer hookup is added to a machine it provides an "added point of failure."

He added that in the case of a recount, the machines would provide a printout, much like tape from an adding machine, which could be 2 feet per ballot for a presidential election. With 720,000 estimated voters, he said Dallas County's recount printout would be equivalent to the length of a trip from Dallas to San Antonio.

“Human error is way more prevalent,” he said when relying on this type of recount system. He explained to recount iVotronic votes, an administrator could print out a report from the machine's files. This would show an image of the ballot and a count.

Sherbet noted that all electronic voting machines could benefit from more redundancy and audits.

He said machine audits could inform administrators if each is functioning properly and tell whether the machine's software is the certified version. Sherbet said that some computer experts have suggested they would like to be able to view the source code, or the proprietary “blue print” of the voting system - a trade secret electronic voting machine companies do not want to share.

Some say this type of auditing could allow computer scientists to determine if the machine's program performs the intended task without error.

With today's technology, Sherbet suggested there could be alternative ways to capture votes, like with video cameras.

The California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology teamed up for the multi-disciplinary collaborative project, the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project.

Several articles on the collaborative's Web site (www.votingtechnologyproject.org/electaud.html) discuss systems for auditing votes via new technology, including “Voter Verifiable Audio Audit Transcript Trail,” to improve DRE voting machine security. In addition to producing a transcript of ballots that can be counted either by hand, by computer or by both methods, the VVAATT system allows voters to confirm selections as they proceed, rather than after the fact. The audio transcript format makes it difficult for individual votes to be accidentally or intentionally separated out from the larger voting pool.

Software updates

When a company issues a software update, the Secretary of State must certified the update, according to Sherbet. Although ES&S issued an update for the iVotronic, he said he opted not to put it in place until tested more thoroughly.

“It took the state one-and-a-half years to certify a new version of [iVotronic] software,” he said, adding that the secretary of state certified the most recent update sometime between April and June - after the state primary election.

“There was not enough time to go through [a lesser election]. We will change it after this election … I don't want to Beta test software going into a presidential election,” he explained.

When asked if Palo Pinto County has a service agreement with ES&S, Fields said, “The agreement with the county is focused on repairing, not on an ongoing maintenance agreement.”

Electronic Voting Tips

Both Ellen Theisen, co-director of www.VotersUnite.Org a non-partisan national grassroots elections resource, and Kim Zetter, a senior reporter at Wired News, suggest the following for all Texas voters, especially since the state does not require paper records:

• Avoid straight-party voting. If you want to vote for all candidates of the same party, select each one separately.

• Review all votes on the review screen very carefully, and make sure they are right before pressing the “Vote” button. “If the machine flips your vote, do NOT be intimidated into thinking you goofed,” warns Theisen. “Vote-flipping is occurring all over the place in Texas and other states. It’s YOUR vote. Make sure it’s what you want it to be.”

If voters encounter any problem with an electronic machine:

• Call a poll worker immediately. “If you’re willing to give up your privacy, tell the poll worker what happened and try to reproduce the problem with the poll worker watching,” Theisen said. [Note that poll workers should not suggest the name of a candidate or party to any voter – an issue also reported by a Palo Pinto County resident in early voting.]

• Record the serial number of the machine “if they can easily see it,” Zetter said.

• Insist on using a different machine and let all the voters in the polling place know that the machine flipped your vote.

• Insist that the complaint be passed to the elections office, and then report it to the office.

• Insist that the problematic machines be taken out of service if more than one voter complains about a machine.

• Call your local newspaper [Palo Pinto voters can contact the Index at (940) 325-4465] and report what happened.

• Call the county elections office and report what happened.

• Report what happened by calling 1-866-MYVOTE1 (1-866-698-6831) and 1-866-Our-Vote (1-866-687-8683). “Our Vote” states theirs will be staffed with legal experts who can help you determine your voting rights.