Man Without Qualities

Monday, August 11, 2003

Davis Descending XXV: Obstructions To The Rise Of The Machines

Some people say:

We know that punch-card voting has a much higher error rate than other means of casting ballots, such as paper ballots or optical scanning machines.

All very trim and neat and ready to be served up on some judicial platter. But as I noted in a prior post, a court relying on such simplifications to obstruct an election is looking for trouble, because reality is much more complicated than such trim and neat platitudes:

[A] recent report by Johns Hopkins University computer scientists ... has sent shock waves across the country. Some states have backed away from purchasing any kind of electronic voting machine ... "The rush to buy equipment this year or next year just doesn't make sense to us anymore," said Cory Fong, North Dakota's deputy secretary of state. ....

The report has brought square into the mainstream an obscure but increasingly nasty debate between about 900 computer scientists, who warn that these machines are untrustworthy, and state and local election officials and machine manufacturers, who insist that they are reliable.

"The computer scientists are saying, 'The machinery you vote on is inaccurate and could be threatened; therefore, don't go. Your vote doesn't mean anything,' " said Penelope Bonsall, director of the Office of Election Administration at the Federal Election Commission.... Still, even some advocates of the new system are thinking twice. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which pushed for electronic machines to help visually impaired and disabled voters, says the Hopkins report has given them pause. ... "We have become concerned about these questions of ballot security," said Deputy Director Nancy Zirkin.

... "Some of these hacking scenarios are highly improbable. But it's not completely out of the question," said Larry J. Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia who has written about political corruption. "When the stakes are high enough in an election, partisans and others will do just about anything. So this is a worry."

Bugs, Glitches Can Abound Computer scientists note that computers are unreliable, subject to bugs, glitches and hiccups as well as the more remote possibility of outright hacking and code tampering.

They warn of a hostile programmer inserting what they call Trojan horses, Easter eggs or back doors to predetermine the outcome. They point to a number of errors in the 2002 elections, from poll workers -- like some in Montgomery County -- unfamiliar with how long it takes to warm up the machines to mysterious vote tallies.

In Georgia, where Diebold machines are used, a handful of voters found that when they pressed the screen to vote for one candidate, the machine registered a vote for the opponent. Technicians were called in and the problem was fixed, state officials have said.

In Alabama, a computer glitch caused a 7,000-vote error and clouded the outcome of the gubernatorial race for two weeks. But more critically, computer scientists charge that the software that runs the machines is riddled with security flaws.

"Whoever certified that code as secure should be fired," said Avi Rubin, technical director of the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins and co-author of the report.

Rubin analyzed portions of [Electronic voting machine manufacturer] Diebold software source code that was mistakenly left on a public Internet site and concluded that a teenager could manufacture "smart" cards and vote several times. Further, he said, insiders could program the machine to alter election results without detection. ... Because there is no paper or electronic auditing system in the machine, there would be no way to reconstruct an actual vote, he said.

Diebold dismissed the findings. ... That doesn't satisfy some critics. "The most important thing about the Hopkins report is not the security holes they found, but irrefutable proof that all this stuff that the machines are secure is hot air," said David Dill, a computer scientist at Stanford University who has turned the debate over electronic machines into a national crusade.

State and local election officials, however, say the checks and balances -- the poll workers and judges, the thick manuals of procedures -- ensure the sanctity of elections. .... Doug Jones, a computer scientist in Iowa, said ... [that five] years ago, he found the identical security flaws cited in the Hopkins report. "They promised it would be fixed," Jones said. "The Hopkins group found clear evidence that it wasn't. Yet for five years, I had been under the impression that it was fixed." Diebold's Radke said the code has been fixed. ....

In the end, however, with experts still at loggerheads and the 2004 election looming, voters are left wondering which side to trust. Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda), a Montgomery County Council member, was so shaken by the Hopkins report that he is considering asking for a waiver to stop using electronic machines.

"The more I look into this, the more serious I think it is," he said.

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