Time for closer scrutiny on e-voting 

California first-term Secretary of State Debra Bowen dropped a bombshell on March 22 by announcing unprecedented tough new standards for all voting machines used here. Testing requirements would include having independent hacker teams attempt breaking into the controversial new touch-screen electronic voting machines. Bowen also wants the actual software of these e-voting machines, so it could be studied line by line for security gaps.

Reactions were sharply divided. California’s county election officials’ association lamented that these new certification requirements could not be met in time to have e-voting machines upgraded for the February 2008 presidential primary. Some computer experts insisted the guarantees demanded by Bowen would actually make it impossible to ever approve any e-voting systems for California.

In contrast, advocates for greater voting machine security were overjoyed by the proposed changes. Stanford computer science professor David Dill, founder of the Verified Voting Foundation, hailed Bowen's edict as a welcome improvement over the prevailing see-no-evil attitude that has rushed approvals for e-voting machines in many states — with sometimes problematic results.

Numerous early-adapter precincts around the country have reported their electronic voting machines losing ballots, counting votes erroneously or breaking down completely on Election Day. Public trust of election results has become noticeably shakier since e-voting debuted.

Presumably the local elections officials in California complaining about delay from stricter test demands are worried primarily because they already purchased at least some e-voting systems and have bigger orders on the way — as in San Francisco and San Mateo counties. However, it would seem likely that purchase orders could be canceled for e-voting machines decertified in California. And surplus machines could be resold to more lenient states.

The bigger question is: Exactly what would be so bad about holding off California certification of suspect e-voting machines until their reliability can be demonstrated satisfactorily? Why rush? In fact, why is it so bad if the state ultimately finds that no e-voting devices are safe enough for California voters?

Those punch-card ballots whose poor design and "hanging chads" caused so much turmoil in Florida in 2000 have been banned by federal law since 2004. The Bay Area and most of California have long voted primarily on optical scanning ballots, which leave a paper trail, are easy to use, can be tallied automatically at the precincts for speedy results, and have never created any major problems in the state.

If the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 had not pressed so adamantly for nationwide conversion to electronic voting, the spending of billions of taxpayer dollars could have been avoided. It is about time for a serious re-examination of whether e-voting really is better than the simpler and less expensive alternatives.

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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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