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