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POLITICS-US: Attempts to De-Bug Voting Systems Before 2008 Elections

Mark Weisenmiller

TAMPA, United States, Aug 16 2007 (IPS) - With 14 months remaining before the 2008 U.S. presidential election, many states are trying to fix security and transparency problems afflicting their voting machines and election systems. With its many system failures in the 2000 presidential election, one of the most prominent of these states is Florida.

Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning ordered a study of the state&#39s optical scan voting machines, which was carried out by computer scientists at Florida State University. The FSU commission, chaired by associate professor Alec Yasinsac, found that the voting machines manufactured by Diebold Election Systems (DES) were susceptible to tampering of computer memory cards.

Browning gave DES two weeks to correct the mistakes.

On Aug. 10, Browning told reporters that DES&#39s optical scan voting machine problems were fixed. DES added more security measures to the voting machines in question. The optical scan machines will be put to the test on Jan. 29, 2008, the scheduled date for Florida&#39s presidential primary.

"The review and analysis examined potential (computer hacker) attack scenarios if a person had access to the memory card," said DES spokesman Chris Riggall. "The problems were related to the encryption and coding of the machines. The reviewers recommended to further advance the security precautions of these machines, and that is what we did."

"There were 10 of us working on the study," computer scientist Yasinsac told IPS. "We didn&#39t do a comprehensive report on all Diebold voting machines; we were only asked to review all of the literature that had flaws of such machines listed in them, and then to look for these flaws in the Diebold voting machines."

In November 2000, inadequate punch-card ballots caused a five-week delay in the final counting of presidential election ballots in Florida. After numerous recounts, the matter was passed to the U.S. Supreme Court, whose historic ruling gave the presidential victory to Republican candidate George W. Bush.

Since that 2000 Florida election day fiasco, numerous citizen oversight organisations have been created in an attempt to ensure that such confused election results do not happen again. One such group is Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota (CEIMN).

The non-partisan, all-volunteer organisation "helped to create, for the first time here, the first home overview of an election audit some months ago," explained Mark Halvorson, founder and director of CEIMN. "We partnered with the League of Women Voters to oversee the audit."

Since there is unlikely to be any federal legislation passed this year on post-election audits, "we are inviting various states secretaries of state, directors of elections, and other key, relevant people to come here and discuss the matter" in October, Halvorson told IPS.

In late July, California Secretary of State Debra Bowen made public a three-part review of the state&#39s voting machines and its election day procedures. Again, a team of computer scientists at a university – in this case, led by University of California-Davis expert Matthew Bishop – found problems with DES&#39s voting machines.

As a result of the report, Bowen decertified voting machines from both DES and Sequoia Voting Systems (SVS) in 39 California counties on Aug. 3. The ban does not apply, however, in the case of disabled voters with special needs that can be met by the machines.

"Here in California, the computer scientists studied touch-screen ballot machines. They found that for every single machine it&#39s possible for a person to break into a voter&#39s ballot, or even ballots for an entire county," explained Stanford University professor David Dill.

He noted that in Florida "there is a benefit with optical scan machines in that you have the paper ballots to verify what the machine recorded."

Dill said the reason DES and other voting machine manufacturers were unreceptive to critiques of their equipment in the past is that "it&#39s a corporate culture mentality. These companies are just saying that the security (of the machines) is a corporate secret and not open to the public, but with all of the problems of the past few years, that&#39s no longer acceptable to the general public."

Kim Brace, founder and president of Election Data Services (EDS), agreed with Dill that "there&#39s been a lot of activity on the issue (of voting machine security) in the past few years by activists who want more responsibility in the election system, and there&#39s also been lots of changes, regarding voting procedures, on both the county and state levels."

Brace&#39s EDS consulting firm does most of its work before states&#39 election days. He noted that "there hasn&#39t been a successful hacking of an election environment. If you attempt to do these things (such as the testing of security measures on voting machines) in an election environment, you&#39re going to be arrested. And you should be. Most states&#39 election directors have elaborate procedures to keep things properly done."

One critic of DES is computer scientist Aviel Rubin, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. In addition to being the technical director of the university&#39s Information Security Institute, Rubin is the author of the 2006 book "Brave New Ballot: The Battle to Safeguard Democracy in the Age of Electronic Voting."

"The (FSU) reports have a lot of disclaimers in them. They were not looking for security vulnerabilities, but doing a literature review. The results of this, and other past problems, is that Diebold doesn&#39t look like a company that can make voting machines. Anybody that builds a new computer that has a security system is vulnerable to attacks by computer hackers," said Rubin.

There is a national group that is partially responsible for trying to resolve the myriad voting machine and election day procedure problems: the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), an independent, bipartisan body created by the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

Bryan Whitener, spokesman for the EAC, told IPS that the commission&#39s Voting System Certification and Laboratory Accreditation Programme "is the first time in U.S. history that the federal government has both certified voting machine equipment and also accredited laboratories which test these manufacturers&#39 new products before they are sold."

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