Ballot-box blues 

Voting-machine critics see a possible November surprise in Colorado

click to enlarge Pueblo Countys machines attracted a crowd during early - voting in the 2006 election. - COURTESY PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN
  • Courtesy Pueblo Chieftain
  • Pueblo Countys machines attracted a crowd during early voting in the 2006 election.

It's Nov. 4, and you're primed for the election season to finally end. You kick back on the couch to watch results tumble in as TV pundits try to predict the next president.

For a while, it looks good for Republicans as they rack up victories in Michigan, Ohio and much of the South.

But the Democrats come back, taking Pennsylvania, New York and California. A close race in Florida means delays, but the Democrats triumph there, too.

You hear reports of huge lines and voting machine problems here in Colorado, but forget them as the drama plays out across the country. Electoral maps start looking much like 2004, with the midsection of the country running red and the edges mostly blue.

And then, suddenly, Colorado is alone among the undecideds, its nine electoral votes keeping either side from declaring victory. And local news stations are hitting the air with residents grumbling about poll workers turning them away and voting machines misbehaving.

By morning, campaign officials, lawyers and reporters are swarming the state in an unwanted reprise of Florida in 2000. The second-guessing starts: Why were most of the state's electronic voting machines decertified in December and then recertified months later? How could this happen?

64-county question

Back in the present, Secretary of State Mike Coffman and most county clerks say there's no need to worry. The certification process put procedures in place that make electronic voting machines reliable and secure. And, they might add, Colorado has a decent track record running elections, at least when compared with Florida, Ohio and other states that have had uncomfortably close races.

But a presidential race decided by only a few hundred Coloradans would highlight the flaws in any voting system. The state has 64 counties, and election officials in each plan to let residents vote with touch-screen computers and a combination of paper and mail-in ballots.

The majority of El Paso County residents will vote on paper. Touch-screen machines will be used for early voting, and one will be set up at each polling place on election day for voters with disabilities and those who want to use them.

Worries about touch-screens, otherwise known as direct recording electronic voting systems, prompted a federal lawsuit in 2006 alleging the machines were not being tested as required by law, and a judge's order later in the year motivated the secretary of state to take a fresh look at them. In those tests, touch-screen computers from three of four manufacturers used in the state failed.

The tests gave some hope to the election integrity movement, but the hope dissolved when machines were reintroduced with long lists of conditions for their use.

Michael Williams, a Denver attorney who helped argue that the law was being ignored, says his work on the case and new familiarity with the machines have left him uneasy.

A close race or major problems with the machines could prompt a review of voting systems and possibly a public outcry. Perhaps more troubling to some observers is what happens if the election passes with no apparent hiccups.

"Even if an election apparently goes off without a hitch," Williams says, "it doesn't mean it went off without a hitch."

HAVA hope

click to enlarge Diebold now calls itself Premier, following company - controversy. - ANTHONY LANE
  • Anthony Lane
  • Diebold now calls itself Premier, following company controversy.

Like baseball fanatics, election integrity advocates use acronyms, lingo and proper names that can prove hard to follow. They tend to like statistics and lament the fact computers and chemicals, respectively, have messed things up.

In elections, the game heated up in 2000 when the country spent weeks obsessing over Florida punch-cards before the Supreme Court ended the recount. The chaos motivated Congress in 2002 to pass the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, which gave states infusions of cash and guidelines.

Whether HAVA improved elections is up for debate. John Gideon, a Vietnam veteran and retired federal employee, now spends his days tracking down news of election problems as co-director of VotersUnite, a nonprofit based in Washington state. Since November 2004, his database of those problems has swelled to nearly 1,000. Nearly half are cases in which touch-screen machines or optical scanners used to count paper ballots miscounted, crashed or jammed.

Glitches with touch-screen machines have lost thousands of votes.

"They are, ultimately, not verifiable," he says. "You can't know what the votes are."

Conspiracy theories drift among integrity advocates, and Gideon mentions them with apparent reluctance. Most famous, perhaps, is a 2003 fundraising e-mail sent to Republicans by Walden O'Dell, saying he could help deliver Ohio's electoral votes to President George Bush.

O'Dell was CEO of Diebold, a leading manufacturer of touch-screen voting machines. He later resigned, and the company's election division renamed itself Premier Election Solutions.

More troubling, perhaps, is computer scientists' proof the machines can be hacked. Ed Felten and two of his Princeton graduate students showed in 2006 that Diebold AccuVote-TS touch-screen machines are vulnerable to stealthy, vote-stealing viruses that can easily spread through the machines' memory cards.

El Paso County, as it happens, uses a newer cousin of the TS machine, the TSx.

Unlike other computer scientists, Felten believes that with a secure printout known as a "voter-verified paper audit trail" and a good post-election audit, machines actually can be fairly safe.

But still, he says, "the risk is higher than I would like to see."

David Jefferson, a computer scientist on the opposite coast, has consulted on security issues with several of California's recent secretaries of state. Even with new printers (VVPATs) bolted to most touch-screen voting machines, he says, the machines remain vulnerable to viruses that could make a subtle ploy to steal votes undetectable even in a rigorous audit.

New standards have sealed the machines with numbered stickers and put other security procedures in place, but Jefferson says the vulnerabilities are hard to eliminate. Studies show most people never check their printouts.

"The whole idea of electronic voting machines, where you must trust software, was ... a fundamentally, profoundly mistaken idea from a computer-security point of view," he says.

California scheming

A test team in California found dozens of problems with the touch-screen machines. For instance, results on the Diebold TSx (now the Premier TSx) could be manipulated or deleted, and its printer records could be "covertly" destroyed using a "common household substance." Testers also reported finding a Diebold machine for sale on eBay.

The California secretary of state ultimately recertified the Diebold machine with nine pages of conditions attached. The rules say all results from the machine must be checked with a public, manual tally of the printed votes.

click to enlarge Paper voting records are meant to verify votes were - properly recorded. - ANTHONY LANE
  • Anthony Lane
  • Paper voting records are meant to verify votes were properly recorded.

Rich Coolidge, a spokesman for Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman, says tests in Colorado were fundamentally different from those in California. There, he says, people were invited to "hack into" the voting machines.

"Ours [was] a more controlled environment," he says.

Last year, touch-screen machines from Diebold/Premier, Sequoia Voting Systems, Hart InterCivic and Elections Systems & Software were all examined in Colorado in a process that included 400 functional tests. Premier alone was certified the first time around, with a list of conditions.

A new law passed this winter allowed the secretary of state to consult with manufacturers and local election officials to find ways of bringing the machines up to snuff. Coolidge says that enabled officials to come up with conditions for each machine that will result in an accurate and secure election.

Some question why Premier's machines, linked to problems in many states, made it through the first tests. Eyebrows rose when the Rocky Mountain News reported in December that a company running Coffman's campaign for Congress was also working for Premier.

Coolidge dismisses that report, suggesting it amounts to "digging" to even bring it up: "The secretary was cleared of any wrong-doing on that."

Fine since '99

Jefferson County is one of several Colorado counties with enough touch-screen machines to allow most voters to use them on election day. Clerk Pam Anderson says she does not yet know if it will be possible to equip them by November with voter-verified printers, as will be required in 2010.

The county is looking at ways to have paper ballots available, Anderson says, but fair elections are really about more than equipment.

"It really is the process around any system you use," she says.

Standing beside an El Paso County machine that still bears the Diebold name, county election manager Liz Olson points to security seals and demonstrates how paper records are securely rolled in a little canister.

The machines have worked fine since they were purchased in 1999, Olson says, adding, "We do what we need to do."

Some are still concerned touch-screen machines or new technologies like the state's electronic voter database could lead to problems. State Sen. Ken Gordon, the Democratic majority leader, says a proposal to run a statewide mail-ballot election this year made sense, given lingering questions.

"I tried as hard as I could to move us to a different system," he says.

If problems arise, a new election commission authorized by a Gordon-sponsored bill will examine results and suggest changes.

Nationally, some experts are skeptical that changes are close at hand. Michael Alvarez, a political science professor at the California Institute of Technology and co-director of the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, says technology can work in elections, noting that in 2007, Estonia carried out an Internet election with few problems.

Several factors make that type of election tricky in the U.S., he suggests. Without a centralized election system or the promise of new investment as HAVA funding recedes, we're left with worries about available technology in an era of fierce partisanship.

"It's not very pretty," Alvarez says. "We're kind of stuck in a holding pattern right now."



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