Electronic voting to get scrutiny at Hopkins

$7.5 million grant to be used to establish a study center

August 16, 2005|By Jennifer Skalka | Jennifer Skalka,SUN STAFF

After widespread criticism about the security of electronic voting systems, the National Science Foundation announced a $7.5 million grant yesterday for a new center at the Johns Hopkins University to explore the reliability of the machines.

Named to head the center was Avi Rubin, a Hopkins professor and longtime critic of the state's electronic voting machines, who said the new center's goal is to design the most foolproof, transparent voting system possible.

The center will be called ACCURATE, short for A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable and Transparent Elections. The money will be divided among six institutions, bringing researchers with a range of specialties, including human behavior, into the mix.

Rubin said he hopes the center will provide information in time for the 2008 presidential contest, but he anticipates that its research work will take longer.

"I don't think with today's technology we can have a voting system that is fully electronic that can be trusted," said Rubin, who teaches computer science.

Rubin has been an outspoken critic of computerized voting. In 2003, he co-authored a report with two graduate students that delayed a $55 million state purchase of machines from Diebold Elections Systems of Texas. The report, which found the Diebold machines were vulnerable to hackers, multiple votes and vote-switching, drew national attention and made Rubin a frequent media guest.

Rubin and other critics claimed the machines could be tampered with easily and did not provide a paper trail to prove to voters that their votes were counted properly.

After extensive public debate, Maryland ultimately made the investment in Diebold, placing the company's voting machines in nearly every precinct in the state.

The Hopkins grant is part of the National Science Foundation's new $36 million commitment to support cybersecurity research and explore ways to increase the dependability of computers.

The NSF project, called the 2005 Cyber Trust program, is also sponsoring a center at the University of Illinois that will examine how the next-generation electric power grid can best be built and secured.

"These two centers represent opportunities to find solutions for urgent national problems," Carl Landwehr, coordinator of the Cyber Trust program, said in a statement.

Hopkins will receive $1.2 million over five years for the voting center. The rest of the grant will go to center participants at Stanford University; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Iowa; Rice University; and SRI International, an independent, nonprofit research group in Menlo Park, Calif. They will tackle a range of related issues, including the legal and public policy questions involved in making the transition to electronic voting.

Michael Byrne, an assistant professor of psychology at Rice who is participating in the project, said as important as it is to design a secure system, it is also vital to make sure it is manageable for all voters, especially those with physical disabilities.

"You can build a great system that fails because it does not meet public policy goals and isn't usable," Byrne said.

Rubin, who will continue to teach in addition to directing the center, said he views the grant as seed money and hopes to expand the project beyond the incubation period.

During the 2004 election, 32 states used some type of computerized voting, according to the Verified Voting Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group in San Francisco. But Verified Voting has tracked 1,700 complaints nationwide about electronic voting since the election, according to Will Doherty, the group's executive director.

Rubin was an election judge in Maryland in November. He said that voters seemed to like using the machines, but he is still worried that they were vulnerable.

"You've got to do more than throw a printer on a machine to make it secure," he said.

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