Press Here to Vote, Then Pray 

With e-voting in flux,its critics ask voters to cast paper ballots.

Come Election Day morning, some Alameda County voters may find themselves face-to-face with something more familiar to citizens of war-torn nations and fledgling democracies: election monitors.

While these observers -- some independent, some partisan -- will be swarming like locusts in Florida and other swing states, monitors also plan to be on hand at local polling places to report any irregularities involving the brand of e-voting gadget with the rap sheet of a three-strikes felon.

As it stands, Bay Area voting activists and some computer scientists are urging civic-minded locals to request paper ballots rather than using the Diebold Election Systems machines, which have completely replaced the county's older voting systems over the past few years at a cost of $12.7 million. County elections officials insist the machines are safe, thanks in part to a number of safeguards mandated by California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley.

Officials, however, have not reconciled their confidence with the county's inclusion in a lawsuit that asserts the same devices have exhibited major security flaws and have been put into service despite having uncertified software -- except to note that many of the concerns were addressed by software patches this year. "How can they expect voters to feel confident about the equipment provided by the vendor when at the same time the county is suing the vendor?" asks Kim Alexander, head of the California Voter Foundation.

Good point. Elections staffers referred lawsuit-related questions to the county counsel, who did not respond to interview requests. Apart from security concerns, though, elections personnel prefer the machines because they are easy to use, are accessible to disabled voters, and can display the ballot in many languages. They also eliminate the possibility -- highlighted in the 2000 Florida fiasco -- that voters will inadvertently choose the wrong candidate, fail to vote in some races, or vote twice in others. Officials say that, assuming the machines are working properly, they are likely to increase the accuracy of the count.

The worries persist nevertheless. Four separate reports issued over the past year and a half found that the Diebold model used by Alameda County has had serious flaws. One inquiry released in July 2003 by a team of computer scientists led by Johns Hopkins University professor Avi Rubin concluded that the system "is far below even the most minimal security standards applicable in other contexts."

Over the past year, the Internet has been abuzz with rumors that clever hackers or Diebold insiders would be able to manipulate election results. The company's critics make the case for taking all such possibilities seriously: "You don't need to believe in conspiracies to be very concerned when technology that's being used for something as important as presidential elections is subject to hacking," argues Lowell Finley, the lawyer who brought the abovementioned Diebold lawsuit on behalf of a group of citizens. "I think it's naive to believe that there would not be someone out there willing to try the same thing, when you consider what's at stake in our elections. It's just prudent to make sure that our elections systems are as secure as humanly possible."

Even rejecting the premise that someone might deliberately try to manipulate the election, there are still reasons to be concerned -- namely, a series of glitches that have resulted from a less glamorous but equally insidious enemy: buggy software.

During last October's recall election, Diebold's software miscounted about ten thousand absentee ballots cast by Alameda County voters for Democrat Cruz Bustamante, tallying them instead for an obscure candidate. A similar glitch turned up in San Diego in a subsequent election. The votes were switched back to the correct candidates when county officials discovered the mistake. And while the problem wasn't with the voting machines themselves, it cast doubts on the reliability of the company's products. "If Diebold's software miscounts absentee ballots, there's reason for concern that Diebold's software might record ballots incorrectly on touch-screen ballots," watchdog Alexander insists.

Just a few months later, in the March presidential primary, machines in 24 percent of the county's precincts failed to work properly on Election Day morning, forcing the county to turn to paper ballots for early voters.

Elections watchers and state elections officials worry that new, unforeseen problems will pop up in November. "There is a significant risk that new problems will arise at polling places at the November 2004 election and, given the technological complexity of touch screen voting systems, most poll workers will be no better able to resolve those problems than they were with the [computer] problem encountered at the March primary," concludes a report on the March primary prepared by Secretary of State Shelley's office.

County officials are prepared for some of these eventualities. There will be paper ballots on hand to cover for unexpected machine failures -- though not enough to cover all voters if something goes seriously wrong. And monitoring by state and county officials, as well as private citizens, will provide checks officials say will make miscounts unlikely. The county will save the paper summaries that each machine produces at the end of the day, as well as a CD containing saved screen images of every ballot cast. In 1 percent of polling locations chosen at random, the county will check the paper record against the totals calculated by the counting software. In addition, volunteers for a project called Votewatch will collect the same data and do comparisons for additional locations.

None of this, however, addresses the key concern voiced by activists, technologists, and the secretary of state: that votes may be recorded incorrectly in the first place. The machines produce a paper record only at day's end, meaning there's nothing a voter can check. If the underlying software malfunctions and records the wrong votes, the correct choices could still show up on the screen -- and that's all voters will see. "The records are nothing more than a paper copy of the data on the machine," Shelley's office noted in its report. "If the data is corrupted or has been altered, the paper copies will merely reflect electronic tabulation of that corrupted or altered data."

Elaine Ginnold, the county's assistant registrar of voters, says she strongly believes the machines do record votes accurately. "I've tested and used these machines since 2002," she says. "In the testing we've done and the testing the secretary of state's office did in the March primary, it's easy to see that whatever you put in the touch screen is exactly what comes out in the final report. They come out 100 percent accurate every time."

But Rubin, the Johns Hopkins University computer scientist, says testing does not address the security of the system: "You can test accuracy to some degree, but you cannot test security," he says. "If I build a fort and nobody breaks in, that does not mean it is secure. Elections officials who confuse accuracy with security are misrepresenting the efficacy of the machines."

Underscoring these concerns, both houses of the state legislature voted unanimously to require paper receipts be produced for each vote cast. That decision won't be implemented until 2006, though -- leaving this important election without that protection.

In the meantime, voters have two options: trust in the security measures already implemented, or cast their votes the old-fashioned way -- on paper. While no one claims the latter is fail-safe, it has one fundamental advantage over the disputed machines: If the results are questioned or corrupted, officials can always go back to the original ballots.

Finley, the lawyer taking on Diebold, points out that choosing a paper ballot has a symbolic significance as well: "It's an opportunity for people to vote with their pens on a question that isn't on the ballot: Is their county's voting system safe and reliable?"

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