December 4, 2006 4:14 PM PST

Panel snubs proposed e-voting check

GAITHERSBURG, Md.--Computer scientists all too familiar with code bugginess have long criticized electronic voting machines that rely entirely on successful software performance, but they have failed for now to persuade a federal advisory committee to recommend otherwise.

At a periodic public meeting here, the Technical Guidelines Development Committee narrowly rejected on Monday a proposal designed to pave the way for a new requirement that all electronic voting systems be "software independent" and readily audited. The TGDC was created in 2002 under the umbrella of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to advise the U.S. government on electronic voting machine standards.

Voting machines are considered "dependent" on software if an undetected bug or modification in their code can lead to an undetectable change in the election's outcome.

"That's sort of the worst possible result from a voting point of view," said Ron Rivest, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology electrical engineering and computer science professor, who proposed the recommendation. "You have an election result that's wrong, and you have no evidence to show you it's wrong."

That prospect prompted NIST staffers to urge against future use of software-dependent machines in a highly publicized draft report written for the committee's consideration. Most of the direct-record electronic machines, or DREs, in use today aren't considered software independent because they don't produce a paper trail or other record that allows auditors to independently verify vote tallies.

Another popular piece of electronic voting equipment known as an optical scan machine has earned more support because it involves feeding a hand-marked paper ballot into a computer for tallying, thus leaving behind a paper record that could be counted in an audit.

The 14-member advisory committee, composed of representatives from state elections boards, engineers, accessibility experts, and computer scientists, rejected the software independence requirement by a 6-6 vote, with two members absent or abstaining. Opponents of the proposal voiced concern that the focus on software alone was misguided or even overblown.

"To totally improve the security of the system, we need to put all the systems under equal scrutiny," said Stephen Berger, a committee member who serves as president of a Texas-based engineering consulting firm.

"We haven't proven that the processes that state election officials have used for a few decades now of testing and verifying the systems before they deploy them is failing. And now we're adding another requirement that they also be able to not only test before they deploy them, but also audit the systems after they deploy them," added Paul Miller, voting systems manager for the Secretary of State in Olympia, Wash.

The idea of replacing millions of dollars' worth of paperless machines has not won a ringing endorsement from all elections officials, many of whom claim there is not enough evidence that a paper trail would significantly enhance security or voter confidence. Thirty-five states either already have some form of paper trail in place or have a yet-to-be-implemented requirement on their books.

Rivest emphasized that he and the security subcommittee he led were not recommending that all states using paperless DREs immediately scrap their machines.

"Requiring software independence doesn't mean that this committee is saying existing DRE systems are insecure," he said. "What we're saying is we can't tell if they're secure or not."

Some consensus among members
Despite the rift over software security, there seemed to be more consensus among committee members that a paper trail is not necessarily the only solution to the problem.

The committee unanimously adopted another resolution designed to urge the voting industry to be more "innovative" in its approaches. Rivest said it would be a shame if Congress passed legislation specifically requiring paper receipts in voting machines--excluding potentially workable paperless verification options--even if it appears that paper is the most viable way to go right now.

A commissioner with the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the federal agency charged with considering the committee's guidelines and supplying guidance to state elections officials, told the committee that she believed voter-verified paper receipts are not a cure-all. She noted the potential for paper jams and other printer failures, which have been documented in some precincts, and urged that the door be left open for new approaches.

"We should continue to research other forms of verification, because technology and solutions in this area, I believe, are rapidly increasing," Donetta Davidson, one of three sitting commissioners, said.

The committee plans to meet Tuesday to continue debating resolutions in the areas of voting machine security and transparency, testing requirements and privacy. It ultimately has until July 2007 to finalize its guidelines, which then go out for public comment and EAC approval or rejection. A new attempt at a software independence requirement could resurface at subsequent meetings.

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Who's in who's pocket?
Seems to me the only people who would object to a paper trail for auditing purposes in e-voting machines would be those people who would benifit from not having it.

Instead of calling it an election, just get it over with and call it a sale.
Posted by Mergatroid Mania (8395 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The only thing that benefits is democracy. The previous theft of
two elections (Florida and Ohio) is well documented and not
some 'liberal' spin or left wing agenda. In fact the florida theft
was exposed by greg palast who attributes his evidence (on
paper by the way) to republicans concerned to see democracy
being hijacked. You might believe Bill O'rielly - but some of us
Posted by flashfast (38 comments )
Link Flag
Sorry Mergatroid
Aplogies - I should have read your full post - yes, a sale it will
Posted by flashfast (38 comments )
Link Flag
Sorry Mergatroid
Aplogies - I should have read your full post - yes, a sale it will
Posted by flashfast (38 comments )
Link Flag
An example of public lynchings being a necessary evil
I wonder how much money the Republican Party paid them to vote against the paper trail back-up for these electronic voting machines? Common sense indicates that it is needed. So, like in most political situations, you got to follow the money trail. Sad to know that not only do we have the best judicial system that MONEY can buy, but we have the best elections MONEY can buy too. Too bad we still don't have public lynchings. Those who voted against a paper trail need to be strung up on a tree.
Posted by partytildawn-20159620461052270 (38 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I'll buy the rope
'It's Not the People Who Vote that Count; It's the People Who Count the Votes'

Even with a paper trail they can still "lose" paper ballots. The bottom line is using proprietary software that no one, not even the Secrataries of State can audit, is ridiculous. The software required to do this job is extremely simple. Anyone that can call themselves a programmer can write an application like this using a few hundred lines of code. Why not let anyone see the code? This is not intellectual property, because an intellect is not really required to write the code in the first place, it's really that simple!

Voting machines should run ubuntu linux, and the vote counting program should be open source. I'm sure you could get nice touchscreen machines that actually work for about $500 each.
Posted by Jeff419 (17 comments )
Link Flag
Republicans support voter fraud
These days, voter fraud is the only way these corrupt Republicans can stay in power-- hence the panel's vote against accountability and integrity in evoting process.
Posted by Xenu7-214951314497503184010868 (153 comments )
Reply Link Flag
why is this so hard?
This is a freaking disgrace. Our country can do so much better than this. Why do we have so many kinds of voting machines. There should be one standard voting machine. I don't care how many vendors make them, but there should be one standard piece of hardware that we all use. The exact same. It should be running open source software, the hardware needs to be identical 100%, a paper audit trail internally, (arguably, in 2-d bar code, non-human readable) and an external paper ballot that the voter gets to take home.
Posted by bemenaker (438 comments )
Reply Link Flag
taking a ballot home
Giving the voter a copy of his ballot to take home is a nonstarter,
because it would open the door to vote selling and voter coercion.
Besides, what legitimate purpose would it serve?
Posted by hr_austin (3 comments )
Link Flag
For those of you writing comments saying the Republicans are the corrupt ones with votes for sale, etc., please stop. For my part, I'll not say the same of Democrats.

Both sides of the aisle have honest and dishonest people. While there are often diametrically opposite views to solving the same problem, that doesn't make either side necessarily evil. Whatever your views of Republicans might be, there are plenty of Republicans that think similarly of Democrats.

Vitriol and diatribes don't help the conversation.
Posted by c|net Reader (856 comments )
Reply Link Flag
very true ... but
You have a very good point about corruption being on both
sides of the isle. That said, you have to understand where all this
is coming from. The president of Diebold stated that his
company would deliver the votes ... for the president. Not for the
people, but for the (republican) president. Fishy, no?

The Florida debacle of 2000 ultimately found that Bush won,
which shouldn't be a surprise considering his BROTHER is the
governor of the state. I would be very interested to see the
results of the ballots that were thrown out, I'm convinced it
would be very revealing.

At my home precinct, we've used optical scan ballots for YEARS
and I don't remember one incident of reported fraud or issue
with the machines. They just work and their tallies are verifiable
OUTSIDE the software itself. So why on earth would anyone want
to "improve" on that by eliminating the ability to verify the votes
after the election? The only reasonable answer to that question
is they want to rig the election!

Remember Clinton being impeached for lying under oath?
Remember what that lie was about, or more importantly who
was damaged by that lie? I bring this up because it's been
proven repeatedly that Bush simply is incapable of telling the
truth and his lies have started wars that have killed thousands of
our children. Iraq WMD's? Iraq's nuclear program? Iraq harboring
terrorists? All BS - well, Iraq harbors terrorists ... NOW that we
have invaded. Feel free to try to find anything this administration
has claimed over the last 6 years - you'll be surprised to note
how much of it has been proven as downright FICTION since.

So when the government, ruled by republican liars, decides that
votes don't need to be verifiable or even secure, what are we
SUPPOSED to believe?

Again, although I've picked on the republicans here, I freely
admit that there are "bad apples" on the democrat side as well -
but until recently they haven't had much power to do anything
have they?

Just keep in mind what company we're talking about that
produces electronic voting machines with NO WAY to verify their
results (DIEBOLD) and to which party they've been sending their
money and support (republicans) and I think you'll see why that
side of the isle is getting so many attacks.
Posted by Dalkorian (3000 comments )
Link Flag
burden of proof
"We haven't proven that the processes that state election officials
have used for a few decades now of testing and verifying the
systems before they deploy them is failing. And now we're
adding another requirement that they also be able to ... audit
the systems after they deploy them," added Paul Miller, voting
systems manager for the Secretary of State in Olympia, Wash.
We have to prove that the testing process has failed? Seems to
me that it's the officials' obligation to prove that their processes
have worked.
But if it's proof they want, there's plenty of it. A good summary
was given by David Wagner in US House hearings in July [0]. The
processes of testing and verifying election systems are totally
If the systems are properly audited after every election, the need
for predeployment testing is greatly reduced.
0. http colon//
Posted by hr_austin (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag

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