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A Hitch In Electronic Voting

Critics Say The State Should Start Over For Best Technology In New Machines

April 25, 2005
By WILLIAM WEIR, Courant Staff Writer

With electronic voting poised to phase out the lever machines that have served Connecticut for more than five decades, some computer experts and voting advocates say the state is going about making the change all wrong.

The transition, driven by federal law, has raised concerns about voting security, potential computer errors and cost. And it has tangled with differing opinions on how best to make the change.

Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz had planned to have an electronic machine in each polling place by November, but the proposals are taking longer to review than anticipated. The new plan is to buy the machines by Jan. 1 and train election officials in their use in time for the 2006 election.

Six vendors have submitted proposals, but some knowledgeable in the field of electronic voting are urging Bysiewicz to toss them out and start again. Because the state is reviewing the submissions, officials in the secretary of the state's office said they would not release details of the proposals.

Critics say the state has limited its search, excluding some of the best technology available. And by moving too quickly, they say, the state will miss out on even better technology that should be available soon.

"We're doing things in the wrong order," said Michael Fischer, a computer science professor at Yale University. Fischer is a founder of TrueVoteCt, a grass-roots group that formed out of concern about verifiable voting in the state. The state needs to take a broader look, he said, rather than "trying to pre-guess what the solution is."

Bysiewicz says she is following the requirements of the federal Help America Vote Act. It was passed in 2002 as a response to the Florida election fiasco of 2000 and the poll-access needs of voters with disabilities. Bysiewicz says she does not intend to run afoul of the act, which could put $34 million in federal money to fund the transition at risk and open the state to lawsuits from advocacy groups for the disabled.

Paper Record

A legislative proposal, should it pass, appears to resolve concerns over whether the new machines would produce a paper record of the votes cast. From the start, Bysiewicz has said the state's choice must, at the end of an election, provide a paper printout of the votes cast. That's not enough, say those who want voters to be able to see their choices on paper before casting their votes. This, they say, would ease concerns about possible computer error, power outages and malicious tinkering.

The proposed Senate bill, which has the support of Bysiewicz and Fischer, calls for a voter-verifiable paper record and is working its way through the General Assembly. If passed as is, the machines would show the voters' choices on paper that would appear behind a piece of glass for review. If satisfied, the voter would then cast the vote, and the paper would retract and go into a lock box. Voters finding an error would start over. Further errors would prompt a check of the machine.

Random audits of machines in each polling district would verify that the machine and paper tallies matched. A discrepancy would trigger a review of the entire district. Officials would count the votes recorded in the computer memory, but in a recount, the paper record would be final.

While the bill eases some of Fischer's concerns about voter verification, he remains concerned because the proposals are already in.

"I think they need to start all over again," he said. "Just reissue the [Request for Proposal] and issue an RFP that solicits the proposals."

Deputy Secretary of the State Maria Greenslade, however, says there's not enough time to start over. She also says the RFP required vendors to show how their proposals would be equipped - or could be adapted - to meet the requirements of the Senate bill.

Fischer's objection to the RFP is that its requirements were "so narrowly focused" that it's unlikely the state would receive any proposals for machines other than the ATM-style devices known as Direct Recording Electronic voting systems.

Optical Scanners

Members of TrueVoteCt say the RFP sent out in February all but shuts out optical scanner machines, which they claim to be among the best technology available. They are cheaper than the ATM-style machines, are less likely to create long lines at the polls, and greatly simplify counting absentee ballots, proponents say.

Bysiewicz is not as keen on the scanners. She says they would come with their own set of problems. Voters mark a paper ballot that is scanned by the machine and the vote is recorded. Inevitably, there would be those who do not follow the directions carefully. When it calls for a checkmark, Bysiewicz, said, some would make an "X."

"Then you get into the chad problem: What counts as a vote? What if they put a line here?" she said, recalling the "hanging chad" problem that dogged the 2000 election in Florida. "We believe they create a chad problem that we don't have in the state now."

Although the optical scanners are cheaper than the direct recording systems, she said, they also require ballots in both English and Spanish, thereby costing the state an extra $6.6 million. Then there's accessibility, she said. How would a blind person independently verify his or her vote from a piece of paper?

Fischer says the AutoMark optical scanner, with its audio readback, allows people with vision impairments and other disabilities to use it independently. It's now under federal review.

But Jim Dickson of the American Association of People with Disabilities says Fischer and others are naive when it comes to certification. Things move slowly at the federal level, he said, and obtaining approvals is no exception. For now, Dickson said, states should consider only machines that are already certified.

Dickson says Bysiewicz has been thorough and cautious. It's her critics, he says, who are being reckless. Part of that, he said, is because they take voting in private for granted.

"They just choose to ignore the fact that they have been able to vote secretly, and it's no skin off their nose if tens of thousands of people in Connecticut don't have the same rights that they do," Dickson said.

No Perfect System

Since passage of the voting act, computer hacking has been widely discussed. Connecticut officials say the chance of someone's gaining illegal access to a machine is minimal. The machines are not networked or linked to the Internet. But Fischer notes that viruses were infecting computers before there was an Internet by way of the data put into them. No system is perfect, he says, but measures can be taken to improve the odds. That includes a voter-verified paper trail, auditing and access to the manufacturers' computer codes for each machine.

"We have to realize that it's not going to be 100 percent foolproof," he said. "We are going to have to get assurances by checking and rechecking at every phase."

He is not too upset about the departure of lever machines. Though they were reliable, secure from hacking, and simple to use, they were also large, inaccessible to many with disabilities, and expensive to store. Even without the new federal law, they were on their way out because manufacturers aren't making parts for them.

Christina Spiesel, a senior researcher at the Yale Law School and a member of TrueVoteCt, said she wishes state officials had opened the new-machine selection process.

The state is planning a series of public demonstrations in September of the machines under consideration. The final selection will be based partly on the comments received at that time. But Spiesel says this comes at near the end of the process and deals only with user comfort, not what's inside the machines.

"Few citizens know what's going on behind the screen," she said. "And all security concerns and auditability concerns all have to do with what's going on behind the screens and what we can't see."

Bysiewicz says the debate doesn't bother her.

"It's heartening that people are taking the voting process very seriously," she said. "We take it very seriously."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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