E-Voting's Biggest Test

Many computer security experts have previously raised concerns about the reliability and accountability of these machines, an issue that is complicated, they say, by the fact that they are manufactured by a number of different private companies and make use of proprietary (or undisclosed) computer code. In 2004, Avi Rubin of Johns Hopkins University, Dan Wallach of Rice University, and colleagues published an analysis of an electronic voting machine used in Maryland and concluded that the machine was "far below even the most minimal security standards applicable in other contexts."

The manufacturer, Diebold Election Systems, now Premier Election Solutions, disputes the conclusion. Nevertheless, in 2007, the Maryland General Assembly voted to move back to paper ballots, although it will still use e-voting machines in Tuesday's election.

More recently, in a review commissioned by the state of California, researchers at the University of California found that electronic voting machines used in that state had security issues that made them vulnerable to vote tampering. The report prompted California to require that all voting machines also produce a paper trail.

Wallach of Rice University says that touch screens can often be poorly calibrated, causing the on-screen image to be misaligned with the touch-sensitive layer of the screen. Even a properly calibrated machine may not work well for an especially tall or short person because of their angle of view, he adds.

Critics' greatest concern about electronic voting machines, however, is that they might be vulnerable to fraud. "I think it's the complexity and the lack of transparency," says Steven J. Murdoch, a computer security researcher at the University of Cambridge. "It's certainly not apparent to the ordinary voter how it works, or whether it can be tampered with."

Murdoch thinks the move towards electronic voting was driven in part by "modernization for modernization's sake. When I was calling this a bad idea, I was being called a Luddite, but I've spent most of my life working with computers."

However, David Beirne, executive director of the Election Technology Council, which represents voting-machine manufacturers, says that electronic systems are designed to solve real problems. He says that paper ballots are expensive, cumbersome, and often "spoiled" by voters who mark them incorrectly.

"Unfortunately, I think the criticisms have reached such a point that no voting system can satisfy the critics," Beirne says. He also complains that critics often present unlikely scenarios, or ones that could easily be defended against with good management practices. And they don't compare the machines against the vulnerabilities of paper ballots.

Charles Stewart, a professor of political science at MIT who has studied voting technology, agrees that paper ballots are also vulnerable to fraud. "Right now, we know a hundred different ways to corrupt paper systems that any idiot could perform. I don't know of anything that any idiot could perform on voting machines," he says. But Stewart also argues that the industry has been slow to address real security concerns that have been apparent for years.

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