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Daytona Beach News-journalonline.com

The Independent voice of Volusia and Flagler Counties

OPINION: Editorial

August 01, 2007

 

If you vote will it count? Can't tell without paper

 

For months, hackers worked to break into California's voting system and change election results.

 

And they succeeded -- at least once, and sometimes by two or more means -- into every system used by the state. Two of the systems are similar to those used in Florida, manufactured by Diebold and Sequoia.

 

The hackers physically altered the machines. They wrote -- and loaded -- hostile code that changed election results. They rigged machines to appear accurate during test mode, but skew the actual tallies of votes. They infiltrated vote-compiling mainframes and changed totals in ways that couldn't be detected and eavesdropped on equipment meant to help blind voters cast their ballots.

 

The good news is that these hackers were working for the state, hired by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen to explore vulnerabilities in electronic voting equipment. Bowen cautions that computer security experts from the University of California-Davis were given advantages that many would-be election-riggers won't have, including unfettered access to equipment. And she says she's still in analysis mode. Bowen has until Friday to determine whether to ban the hacked machines or issue guidelines that address the biggest vulnerabilities in the "penetration team's" report. Monday, California officials started public hearings prior to making their decision.

 

The process should be enough to convince Congress -- which has been stalling on national elections-security measures -- to get moving. The standard for all elections should be voter-verified paper ballots -- preferably, ballots that voters mark by hand -- with allowances for hand recounts when discrepancies appear.

 

When Democrats gained control of Congress, this was one of the first reforms they promised. Unfortunately, protests by foot-dragging state officials have blunted lawmakers' enthusiasm. A compromise hammered out last week would delay meaningful reform until 2012.

 

The deal that appears headed for a vote would require 20 or more states to put off the purchase of true paper-balloting systems. Instead, local elections officials would be allowed to add small tape-style printers to existing machines.

 

The argument: With primaries looming in early spring, there's no time to do anything else. State elections officials must certify all new equipment, and advocacy groups for voters with disabilities insist that they continue to vote on touch-screen style equipment.

 

But the add-on printers will also have to go through a certification process, and chances are they'll only be used for one election cycle, especially if they perform as poorly as anticipated. Meanwhile, there's tried-and-true technology just waiting to be adopted. Many counties -- including Volusa and Flagler -- already use optical-scan systems that use computers to read hand-marked ballots.

 

Critics of optical-scan say the central machines used to tabulate the votes from various polling stations are still vulnerable to hacking, and they're right. However, optical-scan is the only technology that produces an automatic and permanent record of a voter's actual intention. Random audits that compare hand counts of optical-scan ballots to computer results would help ensure that tabulators aren't tampered with.

 

It makes far more sense to push counties toward optical-scan now, with the understanding that in a disputed election, the paper ballots constitute the final say on voters' intent. California's experiment helps hammer that message home.

 

2007 News-Journal Corporation