In machines we trust

The push is on to have e-voting across Nevada by 2004. Is your vote vulnerable?

Photo Illustration by David Jayne

The device looked harmless enough for an unplugged gadget, like a large laptop with folded legs propped against the wall of the Washoe County Registrar’s Office. It’s just another electronic doohickey, really.

But depending on how you look at it, direct-recording electronic-tabulation systems with touch-screen terminals are tools designed to make voting easier, more efficient, with more consistent results for 16 Nevada counties or they’re part of a plot to subvert democracy as we know it, as tech-savvy bad guys fiddle with election results—leaving no trail while we the voters never guess that something’s amiss.

The machines will undoubtedly put an end to talk of chads—hanging, pregnant or dimpled—in Nevada, where seven counties still use punch card voting systems. The gadgets could simplify the election process for the state’s voters and poll workers. They could save local governments such as Washoe County thousands of dollars.

But given tales of hypothetical hackers and researchers’ increasing concerns over the security of electronic-voting machines—not to mention horror tales of manufacturers’ partisan ties—voters may not be at all sure they trust these newfangled gizmos. If people believe their votes aren’t being counted accurately, fewer may bother to vote at all. That would spell a true disaster.

“There’s a national concern about this,” said Washoe County Commissioner Jim Galloway. “In attempting to help some people become more enfranchised, the majority could become disenfranchised.”

The county commission will sponsor a public forum for interested parties on Dec. 4.

Galloway and others across the nation argue for electronic-voting machines with voter-verifiable receipts (VVR)—printed records of the vote—as one way of assuring that electronic election results are authentic.

That’s one reason why he’d like to see Nevada take its time with an adoption of electronic-voting machines statewide. The voter-verifiable receipt technology hasn’t been certified yet, and it won’t be ready to use until the 2006 elections.

“I don’t think the state should transition full scale to these machines until we have [VVR],” Galloway said. “My primary concern is protecting the integrity of the citizen vote. … We must never let our guard down on these things.”

Secretary of State Dean Heller has said he’d like to install touch-screen voting machines—about 4,500 of them, all the same brand—in 16 Nevada counties before the 2004 elections, now less than a year away.

To finance the change, the state has more than $5 million in mostly federal dough in the bank and another $5 million or so on its way. As for security, Heller asked forensic computer specialists from Nevada’s Gaming Control Board to test the machines to see which of two brands is more secure. The results of these security tests weren’t available at the RN&R’s deadline.

Heller would rather not go through another election using older, less reliable technology, he said. He noted past glitches in elections he’s overseen, such as the misprinted ballot for the 1998 U.S. Senate race between Harry Reid and John Ensign. The ballot wasn’t readable by the optical scan vote counter.

The recount took six weeks. Ensign called the process “torture.” Reid won.

The move to touch-screen voting isn’t a huge shift for Nevada, he said. In Clark County—home to 70 percent of the state’s registered voters—touch-screen voting machines have been in use for a decade. The change will affect only the other 30 percent of the state that’s using two other systems that are both, according to Heller, less reliable.

“What would slowing down accomplish, if 70 percent is voting with direct-report systems … with no printouts?” Heller said. “There’ve been no complaints, no problems. I don’t understand the logic.”

Why touch-screen voting? you remember the frenzy over punch-card ballots in the 2000 election in Florida. It seemed evident that punch-card voting was obsolete. Sure enough, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September (during the California gubernatorial recall efforts) that the outmoded punch-card systems were an embarrassment. The court likened them to the black-and-white bean voting system used in the days of yore.

In Nevada, seven counties still use punch-card systems. Upgrades are expensive. Counties in the Silver State don’t have a surplus of dough to upgrade machines used one or two days about every other year.

Fear not, said the federal government. Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, which gives money to states to replace punch-card voting systems. The law compels states to offer at least one direct-recording electronic terminal in each polling place. Nevada could get up to $15 million to buy new voting systems and create a statewide voter registration database.

Over the summer, election officials from Nevada’s 17 counties met to hear presentations from numerous makers of electronic-voting solutions. The group narrowed the vendor pool down to two manufacturers: Diebold Voting Systems (brought to you by the makers of ATM machines) and Sequoia Voting Systems (owned by UK-based De La Rue, the printer of American Express travelers’ checks).

At the same time came a rush of bad press for electronic voting. In July, researchers at Johns Hopkins and Rice released results of a study that found serious security flaws in the voting software systems of major manufacturers, flaws that could be “exploited either by unscrupulous voters or by malevolent insiders.”

One researcher, Avi Rubin, technical director of the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins, told reporters in several interviews that the security was so bad that a 15-year-old with a bit of computer expertise could figure out how to make the “smart cards” that a registered voter inserts in a machine in order to vote. In Rubin’s hypothetical scenario, smart cards were sold out of a garage so that any voter could buy one and vote numerous times for one candidate.

“We conclude that, as a society, we must carefully consider the risks inherent in electronic voting, as it places our very democracy at risk,” the Hopkins study stated.

In August came newspaper reports that the CEO of Diebold, Walden O’Dell, was a major fundraiser for President Bush’s reelection campaign. In a letter to Ohio Republican compadres, O’Dell wrote that he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.”

No matter how you look at it, that’s a bad choice of wording for the chief executive of a company that makes voting machines. O’Dell, in later statements to press, apologized for the remark and for the damage his words may have done to Diebold. (Turns out the damage was minimal. Even after O’Dell’s remarks, Ohio adopted Diebold’s voting machines for use statewide.)

“I never imagined that people could say that just because you’ve got a political favorite that you might commit this treasonous felony atrocity to try to change the outcome of an election,” O’Dell said. “I wouldn’t and couldn’t.”

The apology was a bit late for the media. O’Dell’s promise to “deliver the vote” was in the New York Times—and even CBS News ran a short piece on what it dubbed a “conspiracy theory” about election fraud. Speaking of conspiracy theories, the idea that a Republican-led federal government made HAVA money available to states that shifted election systems provides more fuel for those cautious about e-voting. The problem is, say some, that the federal law foists new electronic-voting systems on states in a way that doesn’t give local governments enough time to consider options.

"[HAVA] rushes us into subtle changes in the way our electoral system works, undermining the fabric of our voting system,” write Bev Harris and David Allen, authors of Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century. “Rather than solving our problem, our legislators made it worse.”

Washoe County Registrar of Voters Dan Burk is no technophobe. He’s looking forward to touch-screen voting, as long as the change takes place smoothly.

Photo By David Robert

Harris is a writer and researcher with concerns about major makers of e-voting machines. The book she co-wrote with Allen is online at It’s a frightening look, via internal memos and documents obtained from manufacturers, about strategies used to gain public acceptance of these products. The inside documents, reprinted with running commentary from Harris and Allen, seem to indicate that the industry takes public opinion more seriously than making a machine that’s secure and reliable.

“For those of you inclined to let other people fix this problem for you, please remember that other people are hard at work to change your voting system to suit their own agenda and profit margin,” Harris and Allen write. “These other people may have a different view of democracy than you.”

Washoe County Registrar of Voters Dan Burk said he’s tired of hearing accusations of flawed software and aspersions against the Diebold CEO.

“I don’t know at what point a CEO gave up his political rights because one of his smaller divisions produces a voting tabulation machine,” Burk said. It’s quite a leap to imply that Diebold machines are fraudulent because the company is headed by a loyal Republican. “It’s just bizarre.”

What about the university studies that demonstrate the ease with which voting software can be manipulated?

The studies were “wholly inconsistent” with the machines’ use in “an election environment,” Burk responded. “Not one of [the researchers] had election experience.”

It’s impossible, Burk said, to “hack” a voting machine that has no keyboard, no disk drive and no connection to the Internet.

A voter feeds his or her smart card to the machine, then places a vote. Votes are recorded in each machine, then transferred by use of a card to a tabulation system. Those cards are fed into a global election management system that records and tallies the votes.

That system is protected by a password that only Burk and one other individual know. That wouldn’t change with a new direct-recording electronic system.

“We get tired of hearing it—all these people telling people that the system can be hacked by a 15-year-old,” Burk said. “That’s simply not true.”

Researchers, he said, were looking at the system as if the machines were on a network that could be accessed through the Internet rather than a stand-alone system.

At the Washoe County Registrar of Voters Office, a lone Diebold touch-screen voting machine was propped against the wall. The device was left here after a TV station had asked to shoot some footage. Burk is familiar with both vendors under consideration in Nevada, and he prefers the simplicity and ease of use of the Diebold machines. New Diebold machines would use the same management software Washoe County already uses with its Diebold optical scan system. That’d save about $25,000 right off the bat.

But Clark County already uses Sequoia Voting Systems. Clark has spent about $16 million on its touch-screen technology.

Many county election officials want to be able to select what machines to buy—maybe not from an unlimited pool of voting gadgets, but at least from the nation’s two leading machines, Sequoia or Diebold. Carson City Clerk Alan Glover wrote a letter to Heller on behalf of the Nevada Association of County Clerks and County Election Officials. Glover is the group’s president. The clerks and election officials agree, Glover said, that counties should be responsible for selecting “the equipment and vendor that will best meet the needs of the local voters.”

Heller doesn’t agree. If the state begins purchasing from two different manufacturers, he said, it would have to allow other manufacturers to pitch their machines to various counties.

Heller wants to use one consistent, accurate system statewide. It makes sense to him. If Washoe were having a problem, Clark workers could help fix it. Poll workers trained on the machines could work in any Nevada county.

Burk said that he’s committed to making the best of whatever system is chosen.

“For us, if our system is not allowed to be used in Washoe County, then the $750,000 to $800,000 we’ve put in the Diebold system is gone. … Why is it so essential to have one type of system? There’s nothing that addresses that in HAVA.”

Burk’s a friendly guy

with a light heart and what seems like an authentic passion for democracy. He’s been doing elections for years. He knows the ins and outs. So his preference for Diebold and his wish to slow down the process aren’t easily dismissed.

Burk ran the first vote-by-mail election, in 1980 in Oregon, which is still the only state where all residents vote via post. There, about two counties converted at a time to the new system, Burk said. After new counties tried it, they became advocates for the system, and they were also able to train election workers in counties that hadn’t yet converted.

“It took 20 years for the state to say we’re going to do it all this way,” he said.

He feared results could be messy if Nevada attempts to install a statewide touch-screen voting system before November 2004. Workers need training. Voters who don’t live in Clark County need wooing.

“We’re going to do this with the largest election we do only one year away?” he asked. “In 16 counties, we’re going to completely change their voting systems—throw out the old tabulating systems and put something brand new in their place?”

Election officials, their staffs and especially voters could end up confused, frustrated. Burk doubts that any maker of touch-screen voting machines—which are being adopted across the nation—would be able to provide on-site tech support to a tiny Nevada county like Esmeralda or White Pine during the busy 2004 election season.

In Washoe County, Burk’s staff trucked in Diebold machines for the most recent Sparks election in order to try them out. They provided paper ballots for folks who showed up and expressed touch-screen phobia. Burk said the machines got great reviews. The process went smoothly.

Burk thinks the state would be better off if it first replaced just the seven counties with punch-card systems.

“Why not get those done first?” Burk suggested. “Then after that, if it works out fine, those counties and Clark can help the remaining nine counties for 2006. That’s a much more orderly way to do it.”

Washoe County Commissioner Jim Galloway doesn’t want voter confidence undermined by a hasty decision to install e-voting in 16 counties across the state.

The Nevada Legislature voted to place Nevada’s election future into the hands of one elected official. Though Carson Clerk Glover said he’d like the legality of that decision researched, Secretary of State Dean Heller was given the authority to set the timeline for e-voting change, to select a machine and install it statewide.

Heller is a politician with a bright future, and he knows this. Last Wednesday, just after his talk on the radio show Nevada Matters, he was still high from getting his picture taken with President Bush in Vegas.

He hadn’t planned on the photo op. Heller and his wife, Lynne, arrived at The Venetian in Vegas mid-morning on the day of Bush’s short Nevada visit. The Hellers mingled, talking with the Caranos and a few political hopefuls.

In an adjacent room, folks who’d raised at least $1,500 were getting photos taken with the president. Heller hadn’t raised $1,500. He’d paid only $1,000 to attend the luncheon with his wife.

Heller didn’t expect a photo with Bush. But just before lunch was served, Heller was pulled aside and sent in with his wife to meet Bush. The president shook Heller’s hand and asked him if he was going to run against Sen. Harry Reid.

“I told him, ‘Only with your help, Mr. President,’ “ Heller said, smiling. “But he didn’t offer any of that $1.4 million he made at the lunch.”

Heller’s a tall, bright-faced elected official who uses honesty and openness almost as if it were a tool. He had just come from the taping of the radio show, on which he’s a weekly guest, and in fact was wearing a blazer over a shirt embroidered “Nevada Matters.” The issue that got phone lines buzzing was direct-recording electronic-voting machines. Wednesday’s Nevada Matters guests included a representative from manufacturer Diebold. On Dec. 3, the show featured a representative from Sequoia.

Heller said he has no preference between the machines.

“My job is to put a system in place that is the most effective, the most accurate and the most secure,” he said. “But one system is in place and used by 70 percent of the state. What would you do if you were in my shoes? Does accuracy still weigh heavily? Of course it does.”

Why wouldn’t Nevadans, he asked, want to improve the accurate count of their votes before the 2004 elections? Even if it does nothing else, electronic voting reduces the chances of a couple of common human errors to zero. Undervoting—when a voter forgets or misses a chance to vote in a given election—doesn’t happen with a touch-screen machine. It’s programmed to remind voters that they missed a chance to record a vote. And over-voting—when a voter accidentally marks two candidates in an election, thus rendering that vote not countable—is another thing a computer won’t allow.

“Why wouldn’t you want that?” Heller asked. “It’s just change. People don’t like to go to a new system.”

Recounts are oh-so-simple with electronic-voting technology.

“You pull cards out of the system and take it to the main system,” Heller explained. “That pulls data off the cards. You push print, and you get the results. Want to look at the results again? You push print and get the results. Want to do a recount? You push print and get the results. That’s your recount.”

That’s what scares researchers at Hopkins and county commissioners like Galloway, who’re calling for a newer version of electronic-voting machine that prints out voter-verifiable receipts. The voter could look at the VVR, if desired, to verify that the results recorded were accurate. The voter wouldn’t be able to touch or alter the ballot.

“A paper trail is the only way, software engineers agree, to verify the vote,” Galloway said. “That one machine is harder to hack than another is not the issue. They can all be hacked.”

Though the technology isn’t available yet, both Diebold and Sequoia are working on versions of the machine that would provide VVRs. The paper ballot would then be deposited into a secure box along with other paper ballots. With these records, a recount would be sufficiently time-consuming and, hopefully, accurate.

To Galloway, this represents a satisfactory merging of high- and low-tech voting systems.

“To interfere with electronic things, it takes only one person with the right information and opportunity,” he said. “A low-tech system takes a lot of people, a virtual conspiracy that’s more easily detected. Why not combine the best of both systems?”

Burk, though he understands why people are pushing for the VVR option, questioned why voters who wouldn’t trust an electronic record would somehow trust a running paper ballot alongside it.

“The big issue is that you’re going to add another element, a separate system that also has to have integrity,” Burk said. “What if somebody programs it so that every piece of paper looks right?”

Heller can think of several additional arguments that don’t support the use of VVRs. Printers could jam, malfunction or run out of ink—causing delays and confusion. Reviewing ballots would make voting a lengthier process for voters. And then there’s the possibility of serious disruptions and legal challenges.

Heller posits a hypothetical where a chairperson of one political party votes for the opposition candidate, then informs poll workers that he didn’t, in fact, vote that way. The entire election’s results could end up in question.

“Could you cause havoc to an election by claiming that ‘I didn’t vote for who I voted for'?”

And then there’s the counting of early votes. And the absentee ballots. How do those fit into a recount situation where paper records are matching with electronic ballots?

Complexities, indeed.

Still, both Heller and Burk agree that, if the VVR option will buoy voter confidence, the risk might be worth it.

“I want to see if voters feel it’s critical,” Burk said. “In Clark County, you don’t hear that question or complaint—or all the Jeremiahs who worry something will go wrong.”

Heller said he’s convinced that the easiest way to manipulate an election is through pollworkers, not machines.

“I am far more worried today about that,” he said.

Burk sounds a bit dismal when he talks about how election officials in these troubled times can’t ask people to trust them.

“That sounds hollow to ask them to trust us, these days," he said. "But if they’re not going to trust us, then we’ll do what we can to make sure they trust the ballot. You can do a lot of things, but you can’t mess with people’s ballots."