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Touch-screen voting risky

By Derek Lazzaro

Nov. 1, 2004 9:00 p.m.

Electronic voting will play a pivotal role in this election, but
the technology is far from mature. Important questions remain
unanswered about the durability, design and security of the new
voting machines.

Millions of voters across the United States will cast their
votes this year on a touch screen that produces no paper trail.
Here in California, 10 counties will use such machines.

If they work as designed, the new electronic machines will be
more accurate and easier to use than the ancient punch-card system
we had before.

And if this were any other election, that would be good enough
for me.

But this time, the stakes are unusually high. This election is
expected to be one of the closest races in the history of the
nation. Both the Republican and Democratic parties have teams of
lawyers standing by, waiting to challenge the result at the
slightest sign of error or impropriety.

If these machines don’t work flawlessly, the 2000 Florida
voting travesty might start to look like a cakewalk. Even a handful
of miscounted or discarded votes could lead to weeks of litigation
and a scramble to recount votes that do not exist in any real
physical form.

Without a paper trail, and considering the tight nature of the
race, problems which would otherwise be merely annoying could
become show-stoppers.

The most simple problem ““ and most likely ““ is that
some voters will be confused by the new touch-screen system. The
Austin Chronicle reported that officials in Texas received about a
dozen complaints from early voters who may have hit
“enter” on the screen when they meant to hit
“next page.” That error resulted in their vote
defaulting to Bush/Cheney rather than Kerry/Edwards.

Glitches are another possible problem. Anyone who has ever used
a computer can remember staring at the monitor in utter frustration
while it fails to respond. Heat problems, power failures, damage
from misuse and good old computer crashes are all definite
possibilities.

Ominously, a central vote-tabulating computer crashed during a
test-run in Palm Beach County, Florida two weeks ago. Officials
were unable to explain the crash, but said damage from a hurricane
may have caused air conditioners to fail, leading to
overheating.

Finally, there are concerns about partisan conspiracies and
malicious hackers.

In 2003, security experts found the code for Diebold, a brand of
voting machines, on the Internet. They analyzed the code and found
at least 23 possible aspects that needed improvement.

Besides the shortcomings in the code itself, the fact that the
code was on the Internet raises other concerns ““ what if a
hacker who was not so civic-minded found the code and could
identify and exploit weaknesses in it? Anyone who has ever had a
computer virus knows even the biggest companies tend to be one step
behind the hackers.

With the old voting system, local officials could conduct manual
recounts of individual ballots if something seemed wrong. With the
paperless system, all our faith must reside in the software and
hardware of the voting computer.

The lack of a manual recount option also means we must entrust
the makers of the machines with democracy. In 2003, Walden
O’Dell, the CEO of the largest electronic voting machine
company, said he wanted to help the campaign of President Bush. He
intended for his comments to be harmless ““ he was not
referring in any way to his role as the Diebold CEO ““ but it
was a reminder that electronic voting systems are truly
“black boxes.”

Inherent in the system is a catch-22: Making the voting software
code public could make the job of hackers easier, but keeping it
private means voters will never know exactly how their vote is
counted.

This pivotal presidential election is not the best time to test
new voting machines. I agree that it is time to move away from
punch-card voting, but there needs to be a paper trail, and the
systems have to be thoroughly tested and secured.

Lazzaro is a fourth-year political science and psychology
student and editorial development director for the Daily Bruin.
E-mail him at [email protected]

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