Computer trouble

November 18, 2003

MARYLAND should heed computer scientists' warnings and cancel its $55.6 million purchase of touch-screen voting machines. E-voting is so susceptible to errors and manipulation irregularities could negate the whole idea of free and fair elections.

This is not a criticism directed solely at Diebold Elections Systems, which is selling 11,000 touch-screen machines for use throughout Maryland. Its competitors' products, too, have the same fatal flaw: There is no paper trail. Consequently, there is no real way to verify disputed results. Unlike paper ballots, which can be recounted, a computer cannot adequately document individual voting actions. Tampering -- or unintended programming errors -- can be difficult to prevent.

There is no way to satisfactorily resolve these issues. Manufacturers of computerized voting machines steadfastly refuse to have their software independently examined by outsiders, insisting their code is proprietary. Nevertheless, enough unauthorized software used by such companies has been leaked to warrant grave concern.

After whistle-blowing scientists last summer raised alarm about the machines Maryland has contracted to buy, an independent review found the touch-screen system to be vulnerable to a "high risk of compromise." However, there is no way to know how bad the deficiencies were because state officials have released only selected parts of the critical study.

This kind of secrecy is unconscionable. It is particularly worrisome because the stakes are so high. In Maryland, along with the new machines, a new statewide system of computerized voting is to be inaugurated next year. Any mischief, if it happens on large scale, could throw an important election.

Consider what happened in Fairfax County, Va., earlier this month. An incumbent school board member lost a close election because touch-screen machines in three precincts malfunctioned. One of those machines, in a subsequent test, subtracted votes cast for her, apparently because of a programming anomaly.

Or how about Boone County, Ind., where computer gremlins produced a count of 144,000 electronic ballots in a precinct of fewer than 19,000 voters?

Bad news does not end there. California last week ordered an audit of all voting systems because Diebold had used unapproved software in at least two of 58 counties.

Voting is not a computer game; it is a cornerstone of our democracy. Maryland will be making a grievous mistake if it ignores all the red flags about the unreliability of touch-screen voting machines.

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