- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

The court-ordered probe into the breakdown of 10 new touch-screen voting machines in Fairfax County on Election Day is fueling a larger debate about how high-tech equipment should replace aging manual devices.

Proponents say the new technology is faster and avoids the sort of debacle caused by “hanging chads” during the 2000 presidential election in Florida. But critics argue that the touch screens are vulnerable to hacking and tampering, and they oppose private companies playing such a major role in counting votes.

The use of touch-screen voting machines has led to an onslaught of lawsuits around the country. The latest was filed yesterday by the Campaign for Verifiable Voting in Maryland, which wants state election officials to reconsider a $55 million contract with the touch-screen voting machine manufacturer after the problems that arose in Fairfax this week.

“The state has ceded responsibility for counting and reporting election results to a private corporation,” the complaint states. “Ensuring the integrity of the vote cannot occur if the state does not count the votes in a transparent way.”

Maryland election officials said they had not yet reviewed the complaint. However, they said they will go forward with plans to install 11,000 new touch-screen electronic voting machines in time for the March presidential primary.

Similar plans are under way across the country as state and local governments are spending tens of millions of dollars to overhaul their systems for recording votes. Under the federal Help America Vote Act, localities must upgrade manual voting machines by 2006.

“There’s this panic because nobody wants to be the next Florida,” said Rebecca Mercuri, a Pennsylvania-based engineer and professor at Bryn Mawr College who has testified before Congress on electronic voting. “Everybody’s just running out and buying this stuff.

“The counties are doing the best they can, but I don’t think in some cases they know what they’re getting.”

Officials in Fairfax County earlier this year bought 1,000 new laptop touch-screen computer voting machines from Texas-based Advanced Voting Solutions (AVS) for $3.5 million. County officials said the purchase was worth the money because it would produce faster returns.

The machines’ debut Tuesday did not go as planned, however. The vote returns came in slower, machines broke down in nine precincts and Republicans filed a lawsuit that challenges the results.

Things went smoother in neighboring Arlington County, where officials purchased 205 machines for $500,000 from AVS in September. “It was the first time we used them,” said Linda Lindberg, general registrar for the County Election Board.

“We had some minor issues,” she said. “It’s brand new, so you’re bound to have few issues. A few machines froze up a couple of times, but we fixed it. We learned a lot.”

AVS President Howard Van Pelt yesterday called the problems in Fairfax a “hiccup,” and defended the new technology against critics who say the system is susceptible to sabotage and software problems.

“It didn’t go as smoothly as we would have hoped,” Mr. Van Pelt said. “But overall, the poll workers loved it and the voters loved it. It was the first time. From poll workers to voters, there were a lot of things people had to learn.”

Meanwhile, Fairfax election officials spent yesterday taking apart the 10 machines that malfunctioned at the polls. They are trying to recover about 200 votes that were recorded at the nine precincts, which are scattered throughout the county.

Fairfax County Circuit Judge Dennis J. Smith on Wednesday ordered county Republican and election board officials to watch as poll workers and AVS officials extract logs from the impounded machines.

Republicans filed a lawsuit Tuesday night asking to delay the final election results after they learned that poll workers removed the machines from the polling places to repair them, a move that party officials said violated election law.

Fairfax County Attorney David Bobzien said he expects that logs inside the machines will show votes were recorded after poll workers repaired the machines and returned them to their original precincts later that day.

County officials yesterday had no comment on whether workers were able to retrieve the votes.

“They’re still working on it,” said Gordon Jarrett, director of enterprise systems for the Fairfax County Office of Technology. “They’re looking at the audit trails and I think that everybody is getting very satisfactory answers.”

The audit trails will help officials as they try to retrieve the lost votes, but for some that’s not enough. “We need a paper trail,” Miss Mercuri said.

Miss Mercuri said many touch-screen machines that keep an audit trail do not show how votes were cast. “You can’t go back to voters,” she said. “At least with paper, you can check.”

Election observers and county officials say the new technology designed to solve problems like those in Florida in 2000 also poses questions about whether votes are safe from tampering.

A study conducted by Johns Hopkins University computer science researchers earlier this year concluded that software used in the new touch-screen technology can be hacked into and that results were susceptible to tampering.

“Common voters, without any insider privileges, can cast unlimited votes without being detected,” researchers stated in their report, “Analysis of Electronic Voting.”

Officials for Diebold Election Systems Inc., one of the country’s top manufacturers of electronic voting machines, defended the technology. Company officials also said one of the university researchers had ties to a company that competes with Diebold.

“Political leaders and experienced elections officials across the country have supported the electronic voting format as holding the greatest potential for ensuring impartial, secure and accurate elections,” President Thomas W. Swidarski said in a written statement.

Maryland awarded Diebold a $55.4 million contract earlier this year, and the Virginia State Board of Elections also approves of the company’s voting machines.

“We take everyone’s concerns seriously because we know the most important thing in every election is the public confidence,” said Barbara C. Cockrell, assistant secretary for the State Board of Elections. “We have acted to prevent whatever is preventable.”

Lawyers specializing in free speech on the Internet filed suit Tuesday against Diebold, seeking a court order that the firm halt sending legal threats to organizations that publish its leaked documents.

Computer programmers and students from at least 20 universities have received the cease-and-desist orders from Diebold, the Associated Press reported.

The leaked e-mails contain routine manuals, old voter record files and employee correspondence; some documents also raise concerns about the security of the company’s software.

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