Security of ballot not 100%

Critics expect flaws as Md. switches systems

January 19, 2008|By Stephanie Desmon and Stephen Kiehl | Stephanie Desmon and Stephen Kiehl,Sun reporters

Outraged by the butterfly ballots and hanging chads of the disputed 2000 presidential election, political activists nationwide pushed for user-friendly voting systems that wouldn't lead to a repeat of the confusion that left the outcome in Florida - and the nation - in doubt.

Less than eight years later - after taxpayers in Maryland and other states spent hundreds of millions on easy-to-use, all-electronic, touch-screen voting machines - the debate has come full circle.

Fear of hackers and lost votes that can never be recovered is forcing out the new technology and giving new life to old-fashioned scanning machines that read tried-and-true paper ballots.

By 2010, four years before its $65 million touch-screen machines will be paid off, Maryland expects to be back on the paper trail, following states such as Florida and California, which have also decided that all-electronic systems make it too easy to compromise elections.

This week, Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed an initial outlay of $6.8 million toward the purchase of optical-scan machines, which will eventually cost $20 million. Lawmakers approved a return to the machines last year, but only if the governor could come up with the money.

Although optical scanners have produced occasional glitches, many experts say the system that Maryland plans to buy for the 2010 election is one of the most reliable and accurate available. The reason: It's backed up by paper ballots that can be saved and recounted if necessary.

"It's still a computer; you could still manipulate an election" with an optical scanner, said Dr. Avi Rubin, the Johns Hopkins University security expert whose findings helped launch the national anti-touch screen movement. "But if there's anything suspicious about the total, you have those paper ballots."

There have always been worries about election integrity. Even paper ballots produced talk of stuffed ballot boxes and tales of ballots getting "lost" on the way to election headquarters. When lever machines appeared in the 1930s, there were concerns that mechanical failures would deprive many of their franchise.

The debate seems to surface every time the technology changes.

A 2006 review of popular electronic voting systems by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law found that "the three most commonly purchased today are vulnerable to attacks and errors that could change the outcome of statewide elections. ...

"Indeed, it is impossible to imagine a voting system that could be impervious to attack," the report concluded.

Voters using optical-scan machines fill in a "bubble" or complete the drawing of an arrow pointing to their candidate. Then they feed their ballots into a scanner at the poll. If they've filled the ballot out incorrectly, the machine spits it back and the voter can try again. If a recount is needed, the ballots are stored so they can be re-scanned or hand-counted.

Touch-screen voting devices operate like automated teller machines: voters cast their ballots on computer screens and have a chance to review their choices before they're completed. But in the case of a recount, there is no paper ballot to examine - just an electronic record on the machine's magnetic memory card.

In recent years, backers and critics of electronic voting have vigorously debated whether hackers can break into a touch-screen voting system and sabotage an election - or steal it.

John Willis, Maryland's former secretary of state and a government professor at the University of Baltimore, said this discussion makes no sense today. Airlines, he noted, are abandoning paper tickets for electronic ones. Doctors are moving toward electronic prescription pads.

"In every other part of life, we're going the other way," he said. "I think it's a giant step backward. I can predict our elections will be no more secure and they will be less accurate - that's what the evidence shows."

Among the 19 Maryland jurisdictions using scanners in 2002, Willis said, there were nearly 15,000 voters who did not cast a ballot in the top-of-the-ticket race for governor. In 2006, when everyone used touch-screen machines, fewer than 10,000 voters failed to cast a ballot for governor.

But the Brennan Center study showed that nationwide, optical-scan machines had fewer residual or "no-votes" than touch-screens, meaning more people had their votes counted properly with optical scanners.

Maryland has had just two major elections with touch-screens - the 2004 presidential race and the 2006 gubernatorial election. Still, it isn't the only state to abandon them quickly.

Florida has also flip-flopped. In Sarasota, voters approved a measure requiring paper ballots after nearly 20,000 votes cast on touch-screen machines were not recorded in a close 2006 congressional race.

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