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Psst… Want to Buy a Slightly Used Voting Machine?

August 22nd, 2008, 10:24am by Andrew Ferguson

Used touch-screen voting machines are going up for sale as states and counties move to more secure technologies, according to a Julian Sanchez story at Ars Technica. Thus begins a new chapter in our struggle to find workable election technologies for the twenty-first century.

Let’s review some history, for readers who aren’t election technology wonks. Florida’s presidential election in 200 put a spotlight on election technology, that is, the systems that we use to cast and tabulate votes. That year we learned about hanging, dimpled, and pregnant chad, not to mention the butterfly ballot. We argued about who should win, but we all agreed that this was no way to conduct an election.

Congress responded by passing the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which provided money to states and counties to buy new election equipment. Unfortunately, many of them bought all-electronic voting machines, more properly called voting computers, which turned out to have serious security and reliability problems. From 2002 on, computer science researchers demonstrated repeatedly that these new voting computers were subject to fraud and implementation errors of a sort not seen with previous technologies. For example, my team showed that one popular voting computer was subject to computer viruses, allowing a criminal who had access to a single voting machine for as little as one minute to steal a county- or state-wide election.

The fundamental problem with paperless voting computers is that they are black boxes — voters and election officials can’t see what is really happening inside the computer, so they have no practical way to tell whether the computer is behaving as it should.

Public pressure over this issue, along with a series of well-publicized election problems caused by voting computers, has led many states and counties to move toward systems that keep a paper record, verified by the voter, of each vote. These systems don’t dispense with computers entirely, but instead augment the computer’s electronic record with a redundant paper record which can be compared against the electronic record afterward to detect computer problems.

This step, though necessary, can be expensive for jurisdictions that just finished investing in voting computers that cannot be retrofitted with the necessary safeguards. The computers end up being sold for surplus, for pennies on the dollar. Some have already been purchased by computer science researchers who want to examine them as a case study in technology failure. Others will surely be repurposed, perhaps as interactive electronic kiosks.

We’re at a turning point for election technology this year. Voters in about a dozen states will be casting their votes on potentially dangerous voting computers in November. That’s fewer states than in 2006, but still too many. Add to this the unusual number of states breaking in new voting technologies this year, and the risk of a technology-related problem in this election is higher than usual. I’d put the alert level at Yellow (“Elevated Risk”).

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