E-voting security questioned

States delay purchases; opportunities shift to voter registration systems

"This controversy has put everything on hold," said Kim Brace of the election management services firm Election Data Systems.

Olivier Douliery

The push to bring voting into the electronic age has stalled amid concerns that new electronic equipment is vulnerable to tampering.

Last month, the states of Maryland and Ohio delayed large purchases of voting equipment pending the completion of risk assessments by independent firms.

A dust-up over e-voting occurred when computer security experts at Johns Hopkins University in July concluded new software and machines that Maryland was poised to buy from Diebold Inc. could easily allow voters to cast multiple votes for one candidate.

State and local election officials, who have defended e-voting in the past, joined company officials in dismissing the allegations. But local election officials in Maryland and Ohio were overruled by the governor and secretary of state, respectively, who ordered the risk assessments to allay public fears.

Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich asked San Diego-based Science Applications International Inc. Aug. 6 to conduct a risk assessment. The report, which is expected to take four weeks, will contain an analysis of the software and go line by line through the university report, said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich.

The week after Maryland announced it was delaying the $55.6 million purchase of voting equipment from North Canton, Ohio-based Diebold, Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell said Aug. 15 that the state was holding up plans to pick qualified vendors for its e-voting project. Blackwell cited security concerns and a lawsuit filed by Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. of Oakland, Calif., a company that failed to make the final cut.

The delays are a serious setback for election companies that were counting heavily on a surge in sales of e-voting machines to revive their flagging businesses.

"This controversy has put everything on hold," said Kim Brace, president of the election management services firm Election Data Systems Inc. of Washington. "You've got [state and local government officials] scared to make decisions and move forward."

Election officials have been counting on a large influx of federal funds over the next few years to help purchase new e-voting equipment and upgrade voter registration systems to comply with the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

When Congress passed the act last year, it authorized $3.9 billion to replace antiquated machines, rewrite outdated equipment standards, encourage research to improve technology, train poll workers and update registration lists.

Of the $1.5 billion appropriated so far, states have received about $650 million to start election reform efforts, said Nancy Zirkin, deputy director of the Washington-based Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

But states are still waiting to receive more than $830 million in additional funding to follow through on plans to purchase new machines and update voter registration systems, she said.

Blackwell, the Ohio secretary of state, approved three vendors or teams to sell new equipment to its counties, said Carlo LoParo, a spokesman for the office. The teams are Diebold; Election Systems and Software Inc., Omaha, Neb.; and Maximus and Hart InterCivic of Austin, Texas. Both Sequoia and Microvote Corp. of Indianapolis were disqualified, LoParo said.

Ohio has received $35 million in federal funding and expects an additional $32 million when the new Election Administration Commission is established later this year, he said.

Brace said it takes at least one and one-half years to successfully implement a new voting system and provide training for poll workers.

"When you bring in a new system, you always have the vendors come in and help with the first election," he said.

Since the 2000 presidential election, a number of systems integrators, including Accenture Ltd., Hamilton, Bermuda; Electronic Data Systems Corp., Plano, Texas; Maximus Inc., Reston, Va.; and Unisys Corp., Blue Bell, Pa., have formed partnerships with companies that make election equipment.

Some states already have made major awards for new equipment and statewide voter registration databases.

Maximus and Hart InterCivic won a five-year, $26 million contract from Orange County, Calif., earlier this year for an integrated, direct-record voting solution, the companies said.

Accenture has developed statewide voter registration systems for Florida and Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania project is a five-year, $18.5 million deal.

The company positioned itself to provide an end-to-end election solution when it purchased the public-sector assets of Election.com of Garden City, N.Y., in June. Through the acquisition, Accenture obtained election systems management software used by more than 170 U.S. counties and several states, the company said.

Unisys formed an alliance in July with Electronic Systems and Software to provide states with centralized, statewide voter registration systems.

With the security scare slowing election system purchases, systems integrators are focusing business development efforts on statewide voter registration systems, industry officials said.

With less than 40 percent of the planned federal funds appropriated for the reforms, states are unlikely to meet next year's deadline for establishing statewide voter registration systems. For this reason, most states are expected to request waivers that would give them until Jan. 1, 2006, to complete their statewide voter registry, according to industry officials.

The cost to implement a voter registration system ranges from $3 million to $15 million, depending on factors such as a state's population, its number of counties and the amount of people who need training, the officials said.

The states expected to issue RFPs for statewide voter registration this year include Alabama, Idaho, Ohio, Oregon and West Virginia, analysts and industry officials said. Other states, such as Colorado and New Jersey, are expected to put out requests for information before issuing RFPs, they said.

Even if some states don't establish a completely new statewide voter registration system, the business opportunity still could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, provided the states receive full federal funding, election experts said.

The heavy demand for voter registration systems is a dynamic business opportunity for systems integrators, said Meg McLaughlin, chief executive of Accenture's eDemocracy services.

"The future is bright for all integrators in this arena," she said.

However, some analysts said the slow pace at which the federal government is releasing funds is even more problematic than the security concerns. What's more, the federal government has yet to establish the Election Administration Council to oversee the reforms, they said.

Christopher Baum, vice president and research area director for e-government with the market research firm of Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn., said the funds are not being allocated at the pace initially envisioned.

The failure to provide all of the necessary funds "will have a far more chilling effect than the Johns Hopkins University report," he said.

Both Baum and Brace are skeptical that the entire $3.9 billion in federal funding for election reform ever will be allocated, given the federal government's budget problems.

"Congress has delayed providing the funds and delayed moving forward. All of this will only provide further complications down the road," Brace said.

Staff writer William Welsh can be reached at wwelsh@postnewsweektech.com.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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