Flawed election machines leave Maryland voters guessing

February 15, 2006|By AVI RUBIN

Maryland has adopted a technology for voting that makes it impossible to audit the results of elections, makes it impossible to perform recounts when races are close or controversial and makes it possible for manufacturers to rig the results without risk of detection.

No voting system is less transparent than a direct recording electronic (DRE) system.

One of the weaknesses of Maryland's voting machines is the lack of any kind of verification by the voter that his or her vote was recorded correctly. A rigged or buggy electronic machine can display one thing to the voter and record the opposite.

Since ballots are secret, there is no way that anybody can ever tell if a machine makes a mistake or cheats. The machines must be completely trusted. They must be trusted not to fail, not to have been programmed maliciously and not to have been tampered with at any point before or during the election.

The defenders of the DREs do not account for the ease with which a malicious programmer could rig an election. It is much easier to hide malicious code in software than it is to detect it. Without an external check on the system, a fully electronic voting machine cannot be properly audited.

Research needs to be done on how to design auditable and voter-verifiable elections. The best way to achieve this today is with a paper ballot that voters can verify. There is no reason why touch-screen machines cannot be used to generate ballots, but they should not be used to tally votes.

In an effort to address the outcry over the lack of voter verifiability in Maryland's voting equipment, our state's administrator of elections, Linda H. Lamone, commissioned a study by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. This study was carried out very well, but unfortunately, it addressed the wrong questions.

UMBC researchers were asked to study, review and evaluate several potential verification systems that might be added to the existing Diebold machines. Asked to limit their study to the existing machines, the researchers were precluded from examining many systems that would make perfect replacements for the current insecure machines.

At a hearing Feb. 1 before the state House Ways and Means Committee, Ms. Lamone argued that the results of the UMBC study (which concluded that none of the verification technologies was adequate) imply that there is no way to achieve voter verification in Maryland.

But there are good solutions out there. States nationwide are dealing with this issue; Maryland is not alone. Many other jurisdictions have chosen to abandon their Diebold machines because of serious security concerns. In fact, 26 states now have a requirement for a voter-verified paper record of every vote.

But there is hope in Maryland.

Del. Sheila E. Hixson, a Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, has introduced legislation requiring a voter-verified paper record of every vote. It also calls for random spot audits and full public disclosure of voting irregularities. If Maryland adopts her bill, we will go from having one of the most insecure and unauditable voting systems in the country to having one of the best.

There are many systems on the market today that could satisfy the legislation's requirements. And it turns out that the most secure and easiest to audit are also the least expensive.

Precinct-count optical scan systems with full accessibility features and multiple language support are commonplace. If the General Assembly acts now, we have the opportunity to avoid leading the nation, along with Georgia, in having the lowest transparency and accountability in our elections.

As a Maryland poll worker, I acknowledge that adhering to the provisions of the bill would make elections, in some respects, more difficult to manage. That's why this bill faces resistance from some members of the Maryland election community.

But the purpose of elections is not to optimize for ease of administration; it is to maximize the chance of a correct outcome that is representative of the will of the people. The bill would not place an unreasonable burden on the running of elections.

Avi Rubin, a professor of computer science and technical director of the Information Security Institute at the Johns Hopkins University, is the author of "Brave New Ballot: The Battle to Safeguard Democracy in the Age of Electronic Voting." His e-mail is rubin@jhu.edu.

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