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Sunday, August 12, 2007

E-voting machines under fire in Tarrant

By AMAN BATHEJA - Star-Telegram staff writer - Sun, Aug. 12, 2007
Electronic voting machines are under fire around the country because of security concerns, and the growing outcry may lead to changes in the machines used in Tarrant County.

The California secretary of state recently banned the use of several voting machines, including the types used here. The machines cannot be used in California in next year's elections unless extra security measures are put in place.

The move followed a report highlighting work by University of California researchers who hacked into three widely used electronic voting machines. The report found vulnerabilities in all the machines, including Hart InterCivic's eSlate and eScan systems used in Tarrant County.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, plans a hearing in September on the report. She and other Democrats in Congress are trying to pass a bill requiring all voting machines in the country to be outfitted with a voter-verifiable paper backup.

"I was very surprised to read how easily these machines could be hacked into and election results distorted," Feinstein said in a statement.

Disputed findings

Tarrant County Elections Administrator Steve Raborn said the study was done under unrealistic circumstances.

"Right now, I don't have any undue concerns," he said.

Among the study's findings, researchers found a way to trick Hart's electronic voting machine to generate the same vote multiple times.

On the eScan machines, which digitally scan paper ballots and count the votes, researchers bypassed some of the machine's defenses and predicted that, given more time, they could have altered the vote tally.

Some of the methods researchers used to infiltrate the machines were "low-tech and required tools that could be found in a typical office," according to the report.

Hart InterCivic has disputed the study, calling a test in which researchers had unfettered access unrealistic.

Raborn agreed, noting the researchers didn't factor in the security procedures counties have put in place, including locks and numbered seals on the machines.

Security concerns

For all the focus on paper trails, some remain skeptical about whether they will make electronic voting machines more secure.

A report released last month by the New York University School of Law and the University of California at Berkeley School of Law said paper trails give only an illusion of security. Many states that employ them aren't doing enough to ensure that the tallies from the electronic machines match the paper results, the report said.

"It's obvious and easy to imagine how you can go about compromising a machine and make it appear on the paper trail that it wasn't compromised," said Jerry Lobdill, a Fort Worth Democratic activist whose research on the issue was published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and was cited in the report. "It's just a technical nightmare, really."

On the trail

Many voting rights activists hope the renewed attention on voting machines will lead to Texas adding paper-trail systems to its electronic voting machines.

Considering the options

A paper backup would consist of a cash register-style printer in a sealed case attached to each machine. Voters could check their ballots against receipts. The paper trail could then be consulted in the event of a recount.

Stumbling blocks

The major obstacle to the move has been the Texas secretary of state's office, which is required to approve all election equipment in Texas but has refused to validate any paper-trail systems.

Former Secretary of State Roger Williams has said all the systems on the market are susceptible to compromising the secrecy of voters' ballots. Scott Haywood, a spokesman for the secretary of state, could not say how Williams' recent replacement, Phil Wilson, would act on the issue.

Legal wrangling

The Tarrant County Democratic Party and four local voters filed a federal lawsuit last year in Tarrant County against the secretary of state, claiming that the electronic voting machines used in the county are unconstitutional and violate federal law without a paper trail.

In December, both sides agreed to put the suit on hold until June to see whether the Legislature would pass a bill requiring paper trails. None of several such bills filed became law. Art Brender, chairman of the Tarrant County Democratic Party, said he is pursuing the case. Another federal suit was filed by the Texas Democratic Party.

Looking ahead

Thirty states require voter-verifiable paper records. Several members of Congress have said they want to require paper trails on all voting machines nationwide by 2008. Most have since agreed that a 2010 deadline is more feasible.

Whether any voting machine legislation will make it to President Bush's desk this year is unclear.

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