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E-voting experts call for revised security guidelines

'Black box that only a regulator can understand'

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A federally funded group of voting system experts called on the United States' Election Assistance Commission, which oversees the nation's state-run elections, to revamp its recommended process for evaluating the security of electronic voting devices.

In comments published last week, the ten researchers that collectively make up A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable and Transparent Elections (ACCURATE) stated that current voting systems are not designed with security in mind and current testing procedures mistakenly focus on voting functionality, not system security. The center, funded by the National Science Foundation in August, released the comments on the last day of a public comment period held by the US Election Assistance Commission on its Voluntary Voting System Guidelines.

"There used to be no gap between the process of voting and people's understanding of voting," said Deirdre Mulligan, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley's School of Law and a member of the ACCURATE team. "Now, the advances of technology have taken a process that was meaningful and transparent and understood by everyone, and turned it into a black box that only a regulator can understand."

The comments are the last in a flood of nearly 1,000 submissions received by the EAC regarding guidelines for the creation and use of voting systems. While researchers and civil rights groups have voiced strong criticism of electronic voting technology - and in particular the systems' security - the national elections held in November 2004 saw only small problems that would not have impacted the outcome of the election.

However, trust remains a significant issue. Voting machine makers and the certification labs that have tested election systems have been secretive about the technology. And, while older machines and the method for counting votes tallied by the older technology were easily understood by the average voter, electronic voting systems have become more impenetrable and have not undergone significant and public testing, said Avi Rubin, a professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University and the director of ACCURATE.

"We are focused on raising the technology level a little bit," Rubin said. "We don't even know, from a science perspective, that you can have a paperless voting machine be secure today."

The researchers at ACCURATE have recommended that the certification and testing of voting systems be public and transparent and that data be collected on election day so that systems may be better evaluated.

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