E-voting security will be a long-term effort

A House panel today struggled with the questions of how to set standards for acceptable error rates in voting technology and how to achieve those standards.

Government officials, computer scientists and technology vendors agreed that it is too late for legislation or technology to have much of an impact on the 2004 election.

The issue of electronic voting has grown as states invest in new voting machines, many of them using computer technology that record votes electronically.

Errors are inevitable regardless of the technology used to record votes, said Rep. Adam Putnam, chairman of the Government Reform subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census.

"My concern is that this election is going to be a fiasco," the Florida Republican said. "Any state could have been Florida in 2000, and nobody has passed any legislation that will prevent another Florida in 2004."

The topic of the hearing was "the science of electronic voting machine technology," but witnesses pointed out that the science does not exist.

"There are no adequate standards for voting machines, nor effective testing protocols," said Michael I. Shamos, of the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University.

"We are making it up as we go along," said Jim Adler, founder of VoteHere Inc. of Bellevue, Wash., a firm that developed voter verification software for electronic voting machines. "The first thing we have to do is measure it," and then standards can be developed to control the margin of error in elections.

State and local governments conduct elections and the federal government historically has not set rules for the nuts and bolts of casting and counting votes. The Help America Vote Act, passed in the wake of the disputed presidential election of 2000, is the federal government's first foray into that area.

But HAVA's key requirements do not kick in until 2006, when voting systems used in federal elections will have to provide for error correction by voters, manual auditing, accessibility, alternative languages and comply with federal error-rate standards.

Work on standards has just begun. The National Institute of Standards and Technology chairs a committee that will produce voluntary guidelines for developing electronic voting software for the Election Assistance Commission.

Acting NIST director Hratch Semerjian, said the Technical Guidelines Development Committee held its first meeting July 9, and is not due to produce its first guidelines for nine months, well after the November election. And the guidelines will be voluntary.

In the meantime, HAVA has made $4 billion available to help states switch to new voting machines and states have begun spending the money, sometimes with disappointing results. California earlier this year decertified electronic voting machines that nearly half of the state's voters had expected to use in November. Missouri recently decided it would not certify any electronic machines that do not produce a paper ballot, and 88 Ohio counties that had contracted to buy electronic machines from Diebold Election Systems Inc. of North Canton, Ohio, now are scrambling to find money for alternatives now that the Diebold machines have been decertified there.

It is too late for HAVA or new technology being offered by software companies to help make the 2004 run more smoothly, the experts said.

Aviel D. Rubin of Johns Hopkins University's Information Security Institute and a critic of electronic voting as it now is done, said all election officials can do now is do their best. "And then hope that the election is not too close."

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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