Voting machine safeguards in question

Consultant testifies that state ignored his recommendations

System is `tremendously vulnerable'

August 26, 2004|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Maryland election officials ignored key recommendations for protecting a new electronic voting system in time for the November election, a state computer-security consultant testified yesterday in Anne Arundel Circuit Court.

The consultant, Michael A. Wertheimer, said the state should receive a failing grade for what it has done with information he provided on how to fix the $55 million system's potential security problems seven months ago.

Whatever improvements have been made, he said, "still leave [the system] tremendously vulnerable."

Wertheimer testified on behalf of voters convinced that the state's new touch-screen voting machines can't be trusted to correctly tally results in the Nov. 2 election. The group, led by TrueVoteMD, is asking that the court compel the state to address possible security problems immediately and give voters the option of using paper ballots instead of the new machines.

Beginning what is expected to be three days of testimony before Circuit Judge Joseph P. Menck, attorneys for the group attempted to portray a system that is rife with security problems and in need of a paper backup to guarantee votes are counted properly. Regardless of how Menck rules, an appeal is expected.

"The issue here is not whether the election in Maryland will be a disaster," said Laura Thoms, an attorney for the voters group. "The issue is whether the state of Maryland has sufficiently safeguarded against a disaster."

But Assistant Attorney General Michael Berman argued that paper ballots are more error-prone than the electronic system. He recalled problems with punch-card ballots in Florida during the 2000 presidential election and questioned the wisdom of fearing "theoretical security vulnerabilities that have never materialized."

"Giving voters a choice is impractical," Berman said. "It's too late. We're at the end of August for a Nov. 2 election. It's impossible to administer it ... The plaintiffs have simply waited too long and the greatest threat to a secure election is an 11th-hour change."

At issue are 16,000 voting machines that the state purchased last year for use in most precincts.

Late last year, two separate state-commissioned studies of flaws in the machines revealed serious security risks. One of those was prepared by Wertheimer, whose firm RABA Technologies is based in Columbia.

Wertheimer said he recommended that the state install 16 "patches" that could help protect the system from tampering, but election officials installed none.

The court arguments over electronic voting were not the first question of whether ATM-like voting machines provide a secure election. Many of the most outspoken critics are computer experts like Aviel D. Rubin of the Johns Hopkins University, who helped launch a national debate on the issue with a report last summer that questioned whether software used by the manufacturer of Maryland's machines, Diebold Election Systems, could leave elections open to manipulation.

California will require by 2006 that Diebold's machines provide voters with paper showing how they voted, and provide officials with an audit trail in case a recount is needed. Other jurisdictions are following California's lead.

A measure that would require audit trails in all electronic machines is stuck in a congressional committee.

The Maryland voter group said it abandoned efforts to require printouts of votes for November, but hope the judge will force the state to equip the machines for future elections. One of the group's attorneys, Ryan Phair, said state law requires a paper audit trail.

Maryland is one of just two states to move almost entirely to electronic voting machines this year.

State election officials said few serious problems were reported in the March 2 primary, but two witnesses testified about their difficulties with the new machines that day.

A Montgomery County Democratic election judge, Mary von Euler, said that when one voter tried to vote for a specific delegate to the Democratic National Convention, another delegate's name was continually highlighted.

And Jeffrey Liss, a lawyer who lives in Chevy Chase, said that when he voted at his polling place, the U.S. Senate race never appeared on his screen. Officials later unplugged that machine, he said. Liss said he asked to be allowed to vote again but was refused. He was eventually given a provisional ballot, which he later learned was never counted.

Rubin testified for several hours yesterday. He said he thinks paper ballots should be printed by touch-screen machines and should be the authoritative count, not the electronic tally.

"The machines should not be used until studies start saying the machines are actually secure and ready," he said.

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