E-Commentary -- Too Young To Vote?

The manufacturers of electronic voting machines have learned how slippery the path from paper to Ether can be.

With the paper ballot fast going the way of the woolly mammoth, this Presidential election year might be a good time to ask the question: Are e-voting machines and the manufacturers who make them ready for prime time? Following the 2000 election debacle, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was passed on Oct. 29, 2002. The dream, supposed to become a reality inside of two years, was of a world in which an electronic voting machine or two, or three, or more, sat powerful and omniscient in every polling place. Presto! No more chads! Touch-screen DREs -- direct recording electronic voting systems -- became overnight hot items for local governments, the same way baggage screening devices became overnight best sellers at airports following Sept. 11. The only problem was, no one bothered to wonder if these machines could be hacked, bugged, buggy, or just plain lemons that could crash at any time, rendering thousands of voters' e-ballots null, void, and well, sucked invisibly into the Ethernet. Critics are saying these machines are largely untried first-generation technology that is prone to breakdowns and vulnerable to hackers. One state found that about 3% of the machines it ordered crashed on start up and had to be fixed. In some cases, because the machines are totally electronic, there is no verifiable paper trail available to election officials in case they need backup data. The manufacturers of these machines, Diebold Election Systems, Election Systems & Software, Sequoia Voting Systems, and Hart InterCivic, claim they are dependable and secure. Yet in separate studies of machines made by all four companies, both Ohio and Maryland cited security risks, although Ohio went ahead and told counties to purchase the machines. The potential for election-day snafus is certainly there. If you don't think so, just take a look at what happened to America Online. The nation's largest Internet service provider, AOL, which likes to think of itself as computer-savvy, got its face egged recently when one of its computer engineers decided he needed to turn a few extra bucks moonlighting. Thereupon he sold AOL's entire list of subscribers, with some 92 million e-mail addresses, to -- guess whom? -- the folks we all know and love, spammers. Hey, what's 90 million e-mail addresses? No big deal. AOL, shrugging off the incident, fired the computer engineer. But the point was made in a very big and convincing way, that someone, anyone, with access to large computer data files and the technological know-how to manipulate or obliterate them, can wreak havoc on the very best of systems, and no amount of computer security systems can prevent it. In the old days, certain political candidates used to buy votes. Some, such as one infamous Midwest mayor, got the dead to register and vote for him. Today, with e-voting, how much of a stretch would it be to imagine a candidate -- or some unscrupulous campaign manager -- buying fake e-votes by paying off some computer-savvy election worker or top-notch hacker? U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) have sponsored bills in their respective houses of Congress to require a paper trail for all e-voting machines. After receiving a printout of his or her ballot choices and checking its accuracy, each voter would insert the paper record into a lockbox. That way, a double check can be made to reconcile any discrepancies in the totals. Unfortunately, as is the case with any new technology hurried into a big-bang-type rollout, the inevitable problems are bound to occur. Whether we hear about them is another question altogether. Doug Bartholomew is a former IndustryWeek Senior Technology Editor. He is based in San Francisco.

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