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‘Paper Trail’ Debate Rages On

As they prepare to hand out $2.3 billion in grants to states for upgrading election equipment, members of the new Election Assistance Commission heard dramatically differing accounts Wednesday about how secure new electronic voting systems actually are — a topic that has stirred considerable controversy on and off Capitol Hill.

Aviel Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University who supports the idea of voter-verified paper trails, told the panel that on a scale ranging from “really, really terrible” to “very, very good,” today’s electronic voting systems are “sitting very close to terrible” and are “insecure.”

An estimated 48 million registered voters are expected to cast their votes using electronic voting equipment this fall, according to Election Data Services, which presented its findings at the hearing.

A large plurality of voters — 45.4 percent — will use optical scan devices, and the remaining 31.9 percent of voters will use other means, including punch cards, lever machines, paper ballots or a mixed method of voting.

While EDS research indicates that 74 percent of voters in November 2004 will use the same type of voting systems they used in November 2000, when ballot errors created a nationwide crisis, scientists like Rubin are warning of the potential for an even more frightening doomsday scenario involving electronic voting equipment.

Rubin — who co-authored a report showing security flaws in such voting systems — said his biggest concern about the new technology in use across the country is that there is typically no physical record of an individual’s vote, and certain individuals, such as vendors, are “in a position to make the outcome of an election come out however they want.”

Rubin said that individuals with access, if they cared to tamper with an election, could “embed malicious code” into the software of such systems that would make something specific happen under certain conditions. He theorized that an individual seeking to influence the outcome of an election could design a system that would allow a shift of 5 percent of the vote from one candidate to another if a person placed four fingers on the screen of the machine four times in a row.

Sound preposterous?

Rubin said he recently challenged 40 graduate students at Johns Hopkins to build voting systems which had “back doors” that could open them to vote tampering and was “astounded to see the ease with which the malicious codes were hidden.”

While several other academics echoed Rubin’s concerns about security, manufacturers of several widely used electronic voting machines chalked up such talk as “sensationalism” and an “amplification of threats.”

Neil McClure — who as general manager and vice president of Hart InterCivic handles all research and development, production and voting system certification for the company’s voting devices — pointed out that a “motivated attacker” would have to “expend considerable effort” on short-term notice to implement a “Trojan horse” attack on electronic ballots.

McClure said that although he recognizes there is a perception problem that electronic voting systems can’t be trusted, there should be threat assessments performed and that any security mitigation studies should be based on that risk assessment.

Mark Radke, the director of marketing for Diebold, touted the success of electronic voting equipment during the Super Tuesday primaries in March. He cited “zero” security problems among the 9 billion voters who cast a ballot electronically.

Not every customer has seemed pleased, however. California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley recently banned the use of Diebold machines until they are proved reliable.

Nonetheless, Radke, noting that “proof of performance that is strong and irrefutable,” said that the stinging critiques from computer laboratories are lacking in real world experience and he emphasized that Diebold machines are safe — that they are not hooked up to the Internet, not networked to other precincts and that all passwords and pins are selected and changed by the board of elections that purchases them.

Two other voting systems vendors — William Welsh, a board member of Election Systems & Software and Alfie Charles, vice president of business development at Sequoia — also testified against the idea of voter-verified paper trails, arguing that the systems haven proven to be secure and that such additions would not add much value.

Welsh — whose company provides elections systems for approximately 50 percent of the precincts in the United States — said that paper trails would add “cost and complexity to what we believe is an already secure system” and that making such a feature available for 2004 would be “out of the question.”

Welsh estimated it would take at least a year to develop such a system.

Kevin Chung, the founder and CEO of Avante, which has been manufacturing touch-screen voting machines that print out a voter receipt for several years, said that voter-verified paper trails are the “only reliable means” to provide for a recount and to ensure the accuracy of a vote.

Representatives of the disability community turned out in force for the packed hearing, which was held at the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency, which accommodated the newly formed EAC.

Groups like the American Council for the Blind and the American Association of People with Disabilities are concerned that a backlash against electronic voting equipment could jeopardize many of the important advances the community has enjoyed in terms of accessible voting machines.

Following the hearing’s morning sessions, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) joined with members of the group True Majority outside the EAC hearing to call for a voter-verified paper trail for this November’s election. True Majority grassroots activists have been bombarding state level officials with a call for voter verified paper trail to accompany all electronic voting equipment.

Holt has introduced legislation in the House to do just that — but has encountered significant opposition from key Congressional sponsors of the Help America Vote Act who say that such decisions ought to be left up to the EAC.

“We’re here because finally we have an Election Assistance Commission and we can take this to the federal level,” True Majority organizer Matt Holland said as he passed out T-shirts to other activists.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Ted Selker told EAC members that he believes “audio verification” would do a “better job” of recording votes and would result in fewer complications, such as paper jams, that could compromise paper receipts.

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