Now’s the time to fix electronic voting 

With the 2006 midterms mercifully over, and as citizens feel freer to exhale after months of electioneering abuse, the impetus for fixing security vulnerabilities with electronic voting machines may be losing its steam. But now’s the time for both parties to admit they have a problem and do something about fixing it — well before the 2008 presidential election.

Thousands of problems with e-voting machines during the Nov. 7 balloting have been reported. Data are still being collected, so nobody knows for sure how many computer malfunctions and other glitches occurred — such as cutting off a candidate’s name (Virginia), an entire race (Kentucky), electronic activators that didn’t work (Florida), machines that couldn’t be zeroed out (Pennsylvania) and pre-marked electronic ballots (New Jersey). In some states, voting hours had to be extended because technical malfunctions forced harried election officials to resort to paper ballots.

The most troubling were numerous reports of "vote flipping" — in which the voter selects one candidate, but the voting machine records a vote for the opposing candidate. "There were hundreds of reports of vote flipping in 2004," Stanford computer scientist David Dill told The Examiner. "I said at a press conference at the time that this needed to be investigated, but we are facing the same problem this year."

Even without such obvious malfunctions, however, one cannot reasonably conclude e-voting machines are accurately recording votes. "All [e-voting systems] are vulnerable to hacking," Dill said. "But you can’t tell it happened just by looking at it." In fact, a team led by Princeton computer specialist Edward Felton was able to replace the memory card of a Diebold voting machine in less than a minute without leaving a trace. One doctored memory card can spread a vote-altering virus from a personal laptop to Diebolds across the state.

"The testing and certification process is not catching all the problems," said Courtenary Strickland Bhatia, president of Verified Voting, a group Dill founded to focus attention on the hidden, but well-documented vulnerability to vote tampering on proprietary voting systems that are not open to public scrutiny.

A third of the people voting in this year’s midterms cast votes on touch-screen machines known to be susceptible to hacking, despite a year-long study released in June by the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law that identified 120 potential security problems with machines currently in use. The study recommended "automatic random audits of voter-verified paper records." Computer science experts at some of the nation’s top universities, including Johns Hopkins, concur. So why aren’t we doing it?

Before the Nov. 7 election,

Californias Sen. Dianne Feinstein said she would pursue congressional hearings on electronic voting no matter which party won. She should be held to her promise.

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Staff Report

Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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