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'Crash tested' e-voting machines spread doubt on Super Tuesday

Six states at 'high risk'

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In the Democratic and Republican primaries being held today, voters from 24 states will cast ballots for presidential candidates, making it the biggest "Super Tuesday" in US history.

But this election day comes with a much more dubious distinction: mistrust of the electronic equipment that will be used to tally many of the votes is higher than ever, computer and political experts say. Doubts about e-voting are no longer the esoteric stuff of geeks and conspiracy theorists. For perhaps the first time, they have become a mainstream obsession.

"In 2002 and 2003, I had trouble getting any credibility in the press or getting politicians to listen to me," says David Dill, a Stanford University computer science professor and a critic of electronic voting machines. "Now, the tide has definitely turned, and the momentum is against e-voting. By and large, there is a perception that it is problematic."

According to a report issued by two voting advocacy groups, six of the 24 states holding primaries today are at a high risk of miscounting votes because of machines that malfunction or are tampered with. Five other states are rated at medium risk, according to Common Cause and Verified Voting Foundation.

The states rated to carry the most risk - which include New York, New Jersey and Arkansas - are those that use electronic voting machines that don't produce a paper record that can be used in an audit or recount. Those found to be a medium risk use machines that provide a so-called voter-verified paper record but don't require audits that check for the accuracy of e-voting gear.

The widespread doubts about e-voting follow last year's release of reports prepared by elections officials in California and Ohio that found critical vulnerabilities in all the machines currently in use. Among the findings:

  • An un-patched Windows 2000 server used by systems made by Premier Election Systems (formerly Diebold) left them open to a host of documented vulnerabilities that could allow it to be controlled by an attacker.
  • An undisclosed account in the software made by Hart InterCivic could allow an attacker to gain unauthorized access to officials' election management database.
  • Physical locks in Sequoia's Edge system could be bypassed by unfastening screws.

Even before the reports were issued, voters had grown wary of e-voting after some highly improbable election results were recorded in a 2006 race in Florida's Sarasota County. Machines supplied by a company called Election Systems & Software (ES&S) showed that Republican Vern Buchanan edged out Democrat Christine Jennings by just 369 votes in the race for the state's 13th Congressional district. More than 18,000 of the ballots cast recorded no vote in the race, an "undervote" rate that was about nine times higher than other races. (Jennings has contested the results in court.)

Each report or event "has planted a question mark, or raised a little red flag in people's minds about whether we can trust the machines, and whether they will live up to the promises made about them," says David Wagner, a computer science professor at the University of California at Berkeley who participated in a top-to-bottom study of voting machines commissioned by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen. "Four years ago, this only got attention from really obscure corners."

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