WASHINGTON – Forget about swing voters.
All the campaign advertising aimed at undecided voters won't make any difference in November if a close presidential race again depends on tallying votes cast using flawed systems. A panel of experts on computer voting technology agreed Tuesday that the problems of the 2000 election have yet to be solved.
Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Technology,Information Policy,Intergovernmental Relations and the Census,the experts said it's impossible to have a fail-safe system by November.
Aviel Rubin,a technical director at Johns Hopkins University's Department of Computer Science,said the most popular electronic system,touch-screen computers known as direct recording electronic,or DRE,are “poorly designed,insecure and should not be used.”
“There's no way for voters to verify their votes were posted correctly,” he said of a system that he expects to record 30 percent of presidential votes.
After widespread public skepticism about the controversial 2000 election results,Congress in October 2002 passed legislation assigning a new federal agency to administer voting,the Help America Vote Act.
“In 2000,Americans got an education on voting,” said Rep. Rush Holt,D-N.J. “We've learned that we have to hold up the principles that voting will be fair.”
For this election year,a U.S. Government Accountability Office (formerly the General Accounting Office) report on electronic voting found that “the challenge facing all voting jurisdictions will be to ensure” that they test and secure their voting systems.
HAVA does not require a specific voting method,and five different systems are currently being used. States often use more than one of the methods,which include hand-counted paper ballots,mechanical lever machines,computer punch cards,optical scan forms and DRE.
But experts said all systems are flawed because there's no firewall that guarantees hackers will be blocked. They also noted that even systems that give voters receipts are unsafe because there's no way to check if the machine stored the choice printed. Another problem,the experts said,is that it's hard to set apart legitimate software errors from those involving voters who get confused.
A group of computer experts who examined five systems brought to Ohio found that “all technology had serious shortcomings,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur,D-Ohio.
“We don't have national standards. Implementation varies from state to state,” said Hratch Semerjian,acting director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology,a federal agency that promotes measurements,standards and technology to improve the quality of life.
Even systems with “serious security flaws” have passed government certification,said Michael Shamos,universal library director at Carnegie Mellon University.
Though HAVA has given states access to about $4 billion to modernize voting systems,Randolph Hite,GAO's director of information technology architecture and e-systems,said the Election Assistance Commission,which reviews voting systems,needs more than the $1.2 million it was given to fine tune the systems.
“They do not believe that it is adequate,” he said.
Acknowledging each system's vulnerability and saying that “there will be errors because humans are involved,” Rep. Adam Putnam,R-Fla.,the subcommittee chairman,asked the experts what HAVA should do to reduce the margin of error to “an acceptable level.”
Semerjian,whose office assists EAC with data,said the commission has requested $10 million to study the systems and shrink error margins.
Rubin said the best solution is to “hope that the election is not too close.”