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    The Pitfalls of Electronic Voting

    “You’ll just have to take a chance,” said Pamela Smith, president of verifiedvoting.org in a recent NetworkWorld article. Smith isn’t referring to petty gambles, but rather whether every citizen’s vote will be counted properly by new computerized voting machines in the upcoming presidential election.

    For years state and local governments have been on a quest to implement new voting technologies to improve the efficiency and integrity of elections. With advances in computing technology, one would think computers hold the answer. Since their introduction, however, computerized voting machines have been plagued with controversy due to their security vulnerabilities.

    Diebold (presently known as Premier Election Solutions), a major manufacturer of electronic voting machines, is perhaps the best example of why e-voting is not ready for prime time. According to the 2006 HBO documentary “Hacking Democracy,” it was discovered in 2003 that Diebold published the code for their voting machines on a public server.

    This discovery led to audits of the code by numerous computer experts, with the results showing that the Diebold software known as GEMS, which serves as the central counter of votes for machines scattered throughout election districts, could be hacked by anyone with a basic knowledge of computers.

    The hack, shown on the Aug. 8, 2004 episode of “Topic [A] With Tina Brown” is as simple as navigating to the GEMS program files folder in Windows, opening the vote database with Microsoft Access (a popular database application, which is included with some sets of Microsoft Office), opening the vote table, and then simply changing the vote numbers to any number of your choice.

    On a similar note, a research paper, “Security Analysis of the Diebold AccuVote-TS Voting Machine,” written by Ariel J. Feldman, J. Alex Halderman, and and Edward W. Felten of Princeton University, said right in the abstract that “?an attacker who gets physical access to a [Diebold voting] machine or its removable memory card for as little as one minute could install malicious code?”

    “Hacking Democracy” mentioned another Princeton University study from 2006 which discovered that Diebold voting machines could be broken into in as little as 10 seconds, by only using keys from mini bars.

    Although the previously mentioned incidents are from prior years, an article in The New York Times Magazine published on Jan. 6, titled “Can You Count on Voting Machines?” said the issue is still prevalent today.

    “The federal testing [of digital voting machines] is not, strictly speaking, mandatory,” the article said. “The vast majority of states ‘certify’ their machines as roadworthy. But since testing is extremely expensive, many states, particularly smaller ones, simply accept whatever passes through a federal lab.”

    A more recent article written by Grant Gross, “E-voting Report: Several States Still Vulnerable,” published on Oct. 16 on the website NetworkWorld, shows that even today there are major issues with computerized voting devices.

    The article mentioned a joint study published by Common Cause, Verified Voting, and the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. It pointed out that “Eighteen states including?New York do not have adequate requirements in place for paper-record backups to e-voting or other nonpaper voting methods.”

    Paper is ideally used with digital voting machines because they provide at least one vote count where voters can confirm their choices. Without paper systems, there is no definite answer as to which choices voters made because the computer can make invisible errors in recording votes.

    “Hacking Democracy” mentioned that Ohio law requires that a random sample of three percent of all votes be checked after an election to see if the paper records are the same as the digital ones. If they don’t match up, then a recount of all paper records must be counted by hand.

    Despite the reliability of hand recounts, as the documentary showed, election workers — or anyone with access to ballots — can withhold paper votes or pre-sort them before an audit, to prevent a recount. This, however, is a whole different topic which is not within the scope of this article.

    The NetworkWorld article also quoted Pamela Smith as saying that while “State protections against voting fraud and e-voting machine failure have improved greatly [since past years]?several states still refuse to take basic precautions to protect the integrity of voting systems.”

    Despite their flaws, the research paper mentioned earlier said, “In the November 2006 general election [Diebold voting machines] are scheduled to be used in 357 counties representing nearly 10% of registered voters.”

    While many other regions are switching to vulnerable e-voting machines, and it is unlikely that a perfect computerized voting solution will ever exist, for people voting in Suffolk County, there is some hope for the time being. According to an article from The East Hampton Star, titled No New Voting Machines This Year, published on Oct. 2, 2008, points out that despite a federal court order from 2002 which was supposed to mandate that New York State modernize their voting machines, Suffolk County is sticking with their existing lever machines because New York State has not certified any digital voting machines to be used in the coming election.

    The reason for the lack of certification is that the majority of computerized voting machines are not up to par with New York’s strict election policies, which are tougher than federal standards.

    Despite the disapproval of computerized voting machines, New York State has a law which prohibits the use of lever machines after 2007, so while lever machines will be used in Suffolk County for the coming elections, it is unclear whether they will be used or replaced in 2009.

    If no new machines are chosen in the near future, paper ballots will be used in place of voting machines.

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