New voting machines to be reviewed

General Assembly asks for its own analysis of possible vulnerability

October 21, 2003|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

The Maryland General Assembly yesterday asked for its own analysis of the state's planned purchase of electronic touch-screen voting machines, including a review to determine whether an earlier study ordered by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was "free of outside influence."

"We think we need an independent look at it," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over voting issues.

Hollinger and Del. Sheila E. Hixson, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, have asked legislative analysts to examine a variety of issues related to electronic voting machines and report back before the General Assembly meets in January.

The touch-screen technology has come under increasing scrutiny since July, when a team of researchers based at the Johns Hopkins University determined that the underlying computer code in machines made by Diebold Election Systems was vulnerable to hackers and tampering. The results were released just days after Maryland agreed to purchase $55.6 million worth of machines to install in 19 counties.

In the aftermath of the Hopkins study, Ehrlich asked Science Application International Corp. of San Diego to provide its own review. Last month, the company reported that "the system, as implemented in policy, procedure and technology, is at high risk of compromise."

Nonetheless, Ehrlich and state elections officials say they are moving forward with the purchase of machines on the belief that the flaws identified by SAIC could be fixed prior to the March presidential primary election.

Some lawmakers say a fresh set of eyes is needed, particularly because of questions about SAIC and its relationships with other voting technology companies.

Research by Common Cause/Maryland showed that Diebold and SAIC are both members of the Information Technology Association of America's Information Security Committee, which, according to a recent article in the Akron Beacon Journal, has begun an effort to improve the public image of electronic voting.

It also learned that Bill Owens, a former SAIC president, sits on the board of VoteHere Inc., a company that competes with Diebold in the electronic-voting market.

Hollinger and Hixson said in a letter that they want legislative analysts to examine "the professional credentials and organizational composition of SAIC to ensure that the SAIC analysis was objective, balanced, impartial, and free of outside influence or other conflicts."

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said yesterday that the governor "welcomes any additional efforts to validate the maximum integrity of Maryland's voting system." Ehrlich is "satisfied" with the quality of the consultant's report, he said.

Fawell said there was probably little the General Assembly could do to stop the purchase of the machines, save for legislation that ordered a halt.

Also yesterday, a newly formed advocacy group launched an informational letter-writing campaign seeking modifications to the Diebold system to improve integrity.

Kevin Zeese, a director of Takoma Park-based Campaign for Verifiable Voting in Maryland, says his group wants the machines outfitted with printers so that voters see a paper record of their votes as they are cast.

Maryland's rush to implement touch-screens statewide, Zeese said, "is like a headlong rush into chaos."

"It's so inexpensive to fix it," he said. "I don't understand what they are afraid of."

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