New Voting Systems Assailed
Computer Experts Cite Fraud Potential
By Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2003; Page A12
As election officials rush to spend billions to update the country's voting machines with electronic systems, computer scientists are mounting a challenge to the new devices, saying they are less reliable and less secure from fraud than the equipment they are replacing.
Prompted by the demands of state and federal election reforms, officials in Maryland, Georgia, Florida and Texas installed the high-tech voting systems last fall. Officials in those states, and other proponents of electronic voting, said the computer scientists' concerns are far-fetched.
"These systems, because of the level of testing they go through, are the most reliable systems available," said Michael Barnes, who oversaw Georgia's statewide upgrade. "People were happy with how they operated."
In Maryland, "the system performed flawlessly in the two statewide elections last year," said Joseph Torre, the official overseeing the purchase of the state's new systems. "The public has a lot of confidence in it, and they love it."
But the scientists' campaign, which began in California's Silicon Valley in January, has gathered signatures from more than 300 experts, and the pressure has induced the industry to begin changing course.
Electronic terminals eliminate hanging chads, pencil erasure marks and the chance that a voter might accidentally select too many candidates. Under the new systems, voters touch the screen or turn a dial to make their choices and see a confirmation of those choices before casting their votes, which are tallied right in the terminal. Recounts are just a matter of retrieving the data from the computer again. The only record of the vote is what is stored there.
Critics of such systems say that they are vulnerable to tampering, to human error and to computer malfunctions -- and that they lack the most obvious protection, a separate, paper receipt that a voter can confirm after voting and that can be recounted if problems are suspected.
Officials who have worked with touch-screen systems say these concerns are unfounded and, in certain cases, somewhat paranoid.
David Dill, the Stanford University professor of computer science who launched the petition drive, said, "What people have learned repeatedly, the hard way, is that the prudent practice -- if you want to escape with your data intact -- is what other people would perceive as paranoia."
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