As Primaries Near, Electronic Voting Security Fears Linger

Carl Weinschenk

It's a bit chilling to even think that perhaps the single element that most defines us as a nation -- our system of free and fair elections -- is at stake because of electronic security.


It is.


Of course, the 2000 election is remembered for what happened in Florida. It was not a primarily a question of electronic security, however. Rather, the actual voting issues (as distinguished from the litigation the voting caused) mostly focused on what constituted a legitimate paper ballot. Four years later in Ohio, the action focused on both the physical -- a disparity in access to machines in historically Democratic and Republican districts -- and fears that the machines had been tampered with.


On Dec. 7, the Ohio Secretary of State released a 334-page PDF on voting systems in the state. The report was prepared by the Evaluation and Validation of Election-Related Equipment, Standards and Testing (EVEREST), Penn State, the University of Pennsylvania and WebWise Security. The results suggest a system so flawed that it's surprising that anyone's vote is counted accurately. This post at ZDNet outlines the findings. The three groups found that there was "a pervasive mis-application of security technology," that auditing capabilities were woefully inadequate and software maintenance systems were "deeply flawed."


Ohio, though it gets the most press, is not the only state with electronic voting security issues. This week, according to The Brad Blog, Colorado's Secretary of State decertified several electronic voting machines after they failed testing. The failing gear includes systems made by Election Systems & Software (ES&S). Some of the company's machines couldn't finish the threshold test of 10,000 ballots and testers could not tell if the votes were accurate. The company's iVotronic DRE system failed because they were easily disabled and had no audit trail. Paper-based optical scan machines from Hart Intercivic couldn't accurately count votes. The state conditionally certified paper-based optical systems from Sequoia Voting Systems.


California is another state with serious issues. This post, in the blog Freedom to Tinker, outlines a detailed report on the InkaVote Plus system, which is manufactured by ES&S and was used in Los Angeles County.


The report is just as scathing as the one from Ohio. InkaVote is an optical-scan paper ballot system, which means that a paper trail remains even if the machine is compromised. That's the good news. The bad news is that this seems likely to happen. The story lists a large number of vulnerabilities. A sampling: The design documentation is inadequate; no privilege separation means that all the code is potentially "security critical;" there are misleading or unhelpful comments in the code; the data flow is potentially complex due to the way in which exceptions are handled and there seems to be a large amount of code for the amount of functionality that is provided.


This was not the first report of shortcomings in California voter systems. In August, a team led by a computer scientist from UC Berkeley found that Diebold machines still contained flaws the company claimed to have fixed years ago. The vulnerabilities could allow use of malicious code capable of miscounting or changing votes. Another vulnerability could enable one machine to set up a vote-stealing virus capable of cascading to every machine in a county. The story also said that someone with access to the machine could elevate his or her privileges without proper permission.


In another bit of California election security news, last month Secretary of State Debra Bowen sued ES&S for $15 million after an investigation revealed that the company had sold the state 972 machines to which unauthorized changes had been made. The machines were destined to be used in five counties. The state is seeking $15 million in reimbursements and penalties.


The primary season will start soon after the New Year. All Americans -- Democrats, Republicans, Independents and members of small parties -- should be concerned about the state of electronic voting. The most frightening part is that the problems seem far deeper than the sporadic attempts to confront them.

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