Voting Machine Study Divides Md. Officials, Experts

R. A. Hettinga rah at
Sat Jul 26 23:26:32 EDT 2003


Voting Machine Study Divides Md. Officials, Experts 

By Brigid Schulte 
Washington Post Staff Writer 
Saturday, July 26, 2003; Page B01 

For some in Maryland, the report yesterday by Johns Hopkins University computer security experts that electronic voting machines could easily be hacked into set off alarm bells. But for others, including the state officials who recently signed a $55.6 million agreement to put the units in every voting precinct by March, the report is one more example of "technological hysteria." 

"The study should be setting off alarm bells," said Del. William A. Bronrott (D-Montgomery). "We need to be 100 percent sure that there is no chance that our machines can be tampered with." 

"Even if was completely impossible that [hacking] would ever happen, the reality that it could happen should be enough to concern us," said Cheryl C. Kagan, a former delegate who opposed using electronic voting machines. "If the system can't be used with confidence, it shouldn't be used at all." 

On Thursday, researchers with Johns Hopkins' Information Security Institute released their analysis of a Diebold Election Systems Inc. software code that they obtained in a fluke from an Internet site. They concluded that the system was so flawed that voters could vote multiple times, that ATM-like "Smart Cards" such as those used in Maryland could easily be copied and that an insider could program the machine to register votes incorrectly. 

Diebold officials dispute that report. On Friday, they released their own technical analysis and concluded that many of the weaknesses the Hopkins experts found could be attributed to the fact that the researchers used a personal computer to analyze the code, and that such weaknesses would not occur in a voting machine. 

Still, officials in Baltimore County say the flaws raised in the Hopkins report vindicate their caution. They were the only county in the state to ask for a waiver from using the machines. The state refused. 

"From the beginning, we have always felt that that state's timetable on this was cavalier and overly aggressive," said Damian O'Doherty, spokesman for County Executive James T. Smith Jr. "We think that there's too much evidence that the machines are error-prone." 

State officials maintain that the touch-screen machines make voting easier and more accurate and insist that the machines are ready for use, despite the report. 

"I don't think you're going to see the governor's office request additional studies," spokesman Henry Fawell said. "We believe that this system has gone through a very tough certification process and was very successful in the most recent election." 

Margaret A. Jurgensen, director of elections in Montgomery County, said that voters loved the machines. "The general election went off perfectly," she said. 

And in Prince George's, Alisha Alexander, an administrator at the county board of elections, said voters felt that they were finally entering the 21st century after more than three decades of using antiquated lever machines. "The feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive," Alexander said. 

Maryland's recent agreement with Diebold is worth as much as $55.6 million for 11,000 voting machines and optional services -- the largest systemwide contract in the nation to date. It represents the second phase of an effort to modernize the state's voting machines. In 2001, the state spent $17 million to put 5,000 machines in four counties, including Montgomery and Prince George's. 

The debacle of the 2000 presidential election, when the future of the country hung in thousands of hanging chads in Florida, prompted many states to reevaluate their voting systems. And Maryland became one of the first to embrace the idea of touch-screen voting. 

The push was championed by then-Secretary of State John T. Willis, who dismissed the Hopkins report as "technological hysteria." 

"To say I can duplicate a Smart Card, sure, you can postulate all kinds of things, but there are so many checks and balances," he said. "I have 100 years of election data. If someone would try to monkey around precinct by precinct with the vote results, I'd know." 

But not everyone is so sure. In 2001, four out of the five members of the technical group that was asked to recommend to the state which electronic voting system to buy instead recommended against buying any at all. The state ignored the advice. 

"They didn't take us very seriously then," said Tom Iler, director of Information Technology for Baltimore County who served on the group. "I suppose it's not very surprising that they're not taking this study very seriously now." 
R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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