Monday, November 13, 2000

Ran in Philadelphia Inquirer Tuesday, November 14, 2000 as "Computer voting: Attractive but flawed"

If there's a better way of voting, most experts haven't found it

By Seth Borenstein
Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON - You'd think there must be a better way of casting, counting and recounting votes, but most experts say they haven't found one.

"It's certainly not perfect now," said Gary McIntosh, Washington State Elections Director and president of the National Association of State Election Directors. "It's questionable about whether it ever will be."

Computers may not be the ultimate voting tools, despite their utility for other tasks, according to experts in computer security and voting.

"All voting systems, including the new ones being proposed - the Internet and direct entry balloting - they all have flaws," said Rebecca T. Mercuri, a computer science professor at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia who consults for the Democratic Recount Committee in Florida. "The question is which flaws do you trade off for?"

Computer voting companies and their proponents point to a system in Brazil that they call near flawless, some trial runs of similar systems in the United States and a new $14 million system in Riverside County, California as proof that computers can fix voting.

But there's one big problem.

Any computer voting system could be corrupted, sometimes easily, according to Peter Neumann, one of the world's foremost computer security experts and a researcher at SRI International in Menlo Park, California.

"Whereas it is possible to build better systems, it is possible that those better systems can also be subverted," Neumann wrote in a 1993 paper.

One Internet voting test in Arizona during the state's Democratic presidential primary was "woefully insecure" and "left gaping holes which we knew about in advance," said David Jefferson, chairman of the Technical Committee of the California Internet Voting Task Force and a senior researcher at Compaq, Inc.

Still, Jefferson said, a computer-based non-Internet system, such as one used in Riverside County, works better than the old punch-card system used in contested Florida counties.

Yet just as the ballot design in Palm Beach County, Florida, was condemned for being misleading, inept graphic design could make a computer screen user-unfriendly.

But computers would offer one improvement, Jefferson said: "A computerized voting system would simply not allow people to vote twice for the same office. The mistake that 19,000 (people) apparently made in Palm Beach County, voting twice for president, simply wouldn't happen."

In Riverside County, the touch-screen computer displays a check mark beside the name of the candidate chosen by the voter, and at the end gives the voter a review screen to make sure he or she did not make an error, said county Registrar of Voters Mischelle Townsend. There are almost no complaints about the system.

Brazil has run this type of closed-system, computer-based voting since 1990, and "it has worked very well," said Kurt Neumann, vice president of marketing for Modulo Security Systems, which runs the security software for Brazil's elections.

Before computerization, voting fraud was rife in Brazil, but now "it's really been cleaned up. It's amazing. This process has been a big factor in implementing it," he said.

Yet Mercuri of Bryn Mawr said she has a video of computer voting systems showing that they don't always record votes accurately.

Another problem with computer-direct voting is the lack of an audit trail. Without individual ballots, there could be no recount in close or otherwise contested elections, McIntosh said.

Townsend said there is a paper printout of individual ballots, but even Jefferson, who favors computer voting, acknowledged that a paper trail generated by the computer that's counting may not be adequate.

Jefferson said his "fundamental concern" is security: Hackers could hijack the process any time anything passed through the Internet. His biggest fear is a "Trojan horse" software hack before a vote is encrypted. Such software "can spy on your vote and change your vote without your knowing it," Jefferson said. "No amount of encryption can change this problem."

"The Internet is too scary for everybody," said Ernest Hawkins, director of voter registration and elections in Sacramento, California, and president of the National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials and Clerks.

Some election officials - such as Hawkins, who has looked at new computer systems and opted against them - are left with decidedly 20th Century methods: paper ballots, machine levers and the now-infamous punch cards.

Paper ballots take a lot of time to count by hand. Punch card systems are showing their flaws in Florida with disputes over where to punch and hanging pieces of paper called chad. Old machine-lever systems are wearing out and sometimes misread vote counts. Punch card and machine-lever systems are so old, key parts are not being made, so some of them are jury-rigged at best.

All the ways America votes "are designed to work perfectly, and if they are used as designed by the election official and the voter, they work perfectly," Hawkins said.

But that doesn't always happen.

"Any one of the systems can have a problem."