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Ballot Stuffing

One Dollar, One Vote

Posted 9/3/2003

Get ready for a spasm of corporate persuasion on the issue of elections this October. That's when Washington, D.C.-based business group the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) plans to start a public-relations push to convince the U.S. public and its government leaders that electronic voting using computers--like the system Maryland plans to install statewide soon--is a secure way to hold elections. While the upcoming lobbying blitz has not been publicly announced, an internal ITAA document about the campaign has been posted on the Internet, courtesy of writer Beverly Harris and her publisher, David Allen, who claims to have attended an Aug. 22 teleconference during which electronic-voting business leaders discussed the plan.

"ITAA is ready, willing and able to work with firms in the election systems sector to build and, as necessary, restore, a high degree of confidence in the integrity of e-voting and related applications," reads the document, which ITAA has verified as authentic. Among other rationales for pitching such a campaign, according to the memo, is to "repair short-term damage done by negative reports and media coverage of electronic voting."

City Paper caused some of that damage by publishing several stories, beginning just before last fall's statewide election, that reflected the concerns of some of the nation's top computer-security experts over the fast-growing use of electronic-voting technology (Ballot Stuffing; Mobtown Beat, Feb. 19; "Future Vote," Dec. 11, 2002; Mobtown Beat, Oct. 30, 2002. The story kicked into high gear in July when The Sun reported on the release of a Johns Hopkins University report that analyzed and criticized elections software. The Hopkins research team did its work on Diebold Election Systems software, which it found to be lacking in fundamental measures to prevent undetected tampering of voting results. Diebold recently sold the state of Maryland its computer-voting system for nearly $60 million.

Since the Sun's story appeared, there have been two major developments. It turns out that the leader of the Hopkins team, Avi Rubin, sat on the advisory board of the e-voting company VoteHere, and held unexercised stock options in the company while he was analyzing the Diebold system. In his defense, Rubin claimed to have forgotten about his board membership and immediately resigned, and he has returned his options. Still, the damage was done--it appeared that his scathing report of a Diebold system may have been motivated by mercantile concerns, given his connections to one of Diebold's competitors.

Still, the Hopkins report got a reaction--even from Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who in early August ordered an independent assessment by Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), a San Diego-based computer-security company, of the Diebold system recently purchased by Maryland.

Computer-voting experts in academia, most prominently Bryn Mawr College's Rebecca Mercuri, have decried both the Hopkins report and the use of SAIC to assess the Diebold system's security. The Hopkins team, she said in an e-mail to City Paper, released its report with "a number of flaws" and before it had been peer-reviewed. She also expressed concerns about SAIC because of its ties to the voting-machine industry. Those ties have been fleshed out by Harris and Allen on their Web site, blackboxvoting.com, where they show that SAIC is represented on the ITAA board--the same ITAA that is planning the e-voting industry's push to convince the public and government of the integrity of their product. The relationship raises a good question: How can we trust SAIC to asses a product that it is planning to promote?

With apparent conflicts of interest in both the Hopkins report and the pending analysis by SAIC, it's hard to know who or what to believe. But according to Mercuri and several other eminently qualified computer-security experts, there is only one way for voters to trust computer-voting technology: voter-verified receipts, pieces of paper much like ATM receipts, printed after each vote. Voters can review them to make sure their votes were recorded as they intended. After reviewing the receipts for accuracy, voters would then place them in a lockbox at their polling places. In the event of a recount, the computer's memory can be compared to the paper receipts. It's called an "independent audit trail," an elementary concept in any system requiring security.

Maryland elections officials and computer-voting company representatives interviewed by City Paper have said that installing this simple protection is unnecessary and too costly. They've expressed willingness to provide it, though, if the public demands it.

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