Security for voting machines is pushed

Bills filed to allow auditing of ballots

February 02, 2005|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Despite doomsday predictions of machine meltdowns and the hijacking of votes via computer, the state's new $55 million electronic voting machines made it through their first major test on Election Day 2004 with what appeared to be only minor glitches.

Still, a push to add a layer of security to the machines -- including a way to conduct meaningful recounts of ballots if necessary -- appears to be picking up momentum in Annapolis this year.

"We just feel very strongly that our voters need to feel confident their votes have been counted, so we don't have an Ohio or a Florida," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, the Democratic chairwoman of the Education, Health & Environmental Affairs Committee. "I just feel this is the year."

Last year, bills to add paper receipts to the Diebold touch-screen voting machines died in conference committee at the end of the session. This year, several legislators said they think the support is there, even though no major problems were evident. Computer experts and voting-reform advocates say there could have been problems hidden in the software -- votes that were counted incorrectly or lost -- that will forever be undetectable.

Some are demanding nothing less than a return to paper -- something called a voter-verified audit trail, which means a voter sees a printout of how he or she voted and has a chance to approve that piece of paper. It is then put away for safekeeping in case a recount is required, a record that can be held up against computerized tallies for accuracy.

Some electronic machines in Nevada were equipped with a paper audit trail in November, which worked well by many accounts but often resulted in longer lines at the polling places as the ballots were reviewed. The printouts will be the standard in California next year.

"To conduct an audit, you have to have an alternative record created by alternative means," said Kevin Zeese, a Takoma Park attorney who is part of a group of activists called TrueVoteMD. "The only method of verifying voter intent is ... paper."

Bills calling for a paper audit trail have been introduced in the Maryland House of Delegates and Senate this session. But a second set of bills is causing headaches for TrueVoteMD, which filed a lawsuit last year to force the State Board of Elections to put in place a paper trail.

These bills -- one sponsored by Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Southern Maryland Democrat, and another by Del. Jon S. Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat -- seek a way to independently audit the current system, but the sponsors say they don't want the state forced to use paper.

They argue there could be other ways -- digital, microfilm or something else -- to accomplish the same goals: to be able to recount, to remove computer fraud from the equation and to bolster voter confidence.

Officials with a Bellevue, Wash., computer firm -- VoteHere Inc. -- testified before a legislative committee in December asking that the law be written to allow their software a chance to compete in the quest for more secure elections. Their software would enable voters to verify that their choices were recorded accurately through a relatively complicated process whereby voters receive encoded receipts that allow them to check on their votes later on a Web site.

Although their software doesn't allow for a recount in the traditional sense, VoteHere officials say it can be audited for accuracy as party activists and others keep watch. It would not require paper ballots to be stored for long periods, as a paper trail requirement would. Paper is irksome to election officials, who had hoped to do away with the cumbersome and mistake-prone ballots.

The technology has not been used in any elections, nor have any governments purchased it, said company spokesman Tom Mereckis said.

Some experts say the technology is unproven and isn't the answer to security problems. Others argue it won't solve the problem, either.

"Voter verifiability is a good thing," Michael I. Shamos, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University who testified on behalf of Maryland's elections board in TrueVote- MD's suit against it, told the committee in December. "Paper trails are probably not."

Putting in place a paper trail could cost the state an estimated $16 million, Hollinger said, adding that another kind of technology could cost even more. A bill needs to be passed this year, she said, for it to be in place for next year's gubernatorial election. A hearing on the Senate's two bills will be at 1 p.m. today. The House bills have not yet been scheduled for hearings.

Del. Obie Patterson, a Prince George's County Democrat who is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Election Law, said he is considering putting in his own bill -- one that would study the options this year and put off a final decision until next year.

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