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E-voting worries focus on failures, not fraud

Papering over the cracks

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Other failures stymied voters as well. Machines in Florida failed to start up properly, while e-polling laptops in Denver could not keep up with the pace of the polls.

The problems had some election workers willing to go back to a simpler time. In Florida's Broward County, one polling station could not get 10 out of 14 machines to accept votes for the first two hours of the election, according to news reports.

"I have two words for them - paper ballots!" 10-year veteran election volunteer John Miller, 78, told the Miami Herald. "I come from New England and they're still using paper ballots. They have no problems."

Yet, paper ballots also led to a long wait for the final tally, significant errors in counting and still did not eliminate or significantly reduce the chance of fraud, said Daniel Tokaji, an assistant professor of law at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law.

"I think it is people's intuition that paper is a panacea, but history tells us otherwise," Tokaji said. "The whole reason that we went away from paper ballots to lever machines was because paper was manipulatable."

Purdue University's Spafford stressed that the election problems this year were minor compared to what could happen. Machine failures in a critical state could create an election crisis if there is no backup method for counting people's votes cast on defective machines, he said, adding that such worries are not the province of any particular party.

"The technologists that I know who are concerned about this, span the political spectrum," Spafford said. "They want something that is good for the country - it is not a political issue."

Tokaji agreed that future problems could significantly hinder elections, but maintained that the paper trail mandated by more than half of U.S. states could be the heart of the issue. In a May primary in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, numerous problems, including a large number of failure in the printing of voter verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) ballots, plagued the election.

"I'm very concerned about how well VVPAT recounts are going to work in a close election," Tokaji said. "In Cuyahoga County, there was a lot of problems in the primary, but the finding that troubles me was that (many of) the VVPAT records were damaged or somehow compromised, and that concerns me in a close election."

In the future, the academics and voting-system critics need to work more closely with election officials, Thomas Wilkey, executive director of the Election Assistance Commission, said in an interview prior to the election. The EAC has just completed its public comment period on the federal certification guidelines for new voting systems.

"I am not going to take away from any of the work these folks have done," Wilkey said. "What we would love to see happen is the scientists the academics get together with the true election officials out there."

Until now, most election officials have been wary of academicians, but after the latest election, maybe that will change.

This article originally appeared in Security Focus.

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