States Scramble to Test Ballot Machines

By Caron Carlson  |  Posted 2005-12-02

Gearing up for next years midterm elections and looming federal compliance deadlines, state election officials are racing to test electronic ballot machines and implement safeguards against problems that have cast clouds over recent vote counts.

Diebold Inc., the countrys largest provider of electronic voting equipment, came under particular scrutiny in California and North Carolina, where officials are under pressure to comply not only with the Help America Vote Act of 2002 but also with state regulations.

Under a new North Carolina law, voting machine suppliers must turn over the software code, including that of third-party developers, running on their systems.

Passage of the law followed the loss of more than 4,000 votes in a 2004 election when machines accepted more ballots than their memories could hold.

Diebold sought protection from criminal liability if it failed to comply with the requirement, arguing that it is not authorized to reveal the code of other developers.

After a court denied the request, Diebold was deliberating whether it could continue selling machines in the state, said David Bear, spokesperson for Diebold Election Systems, in North Canton, Ohio.

"Its not that we have an issue providing our source code," Bear said. "The problem is that the law requires us to provide not just our source code but also the code of third-party vendors as well as the developers involved. I dont know who all the developers were for [Microsoft Corp.s Windows] CE. We dont own it; we license the use of it."

Meanwhile, in California, a state-endorsed test to see whether Diebolds election equipment could be hacked by renowned Finnish computer expert Harri Hursti was scuttled this week amid confusion and disagreement over logistics.

"This was something that the [California] Secretary of States office had offered to this third party under a real election environment. But they didnt want to [conduct] it under a real election environment," Bear said, adding that giving unfettered access to a hacker would not simulate actual election conditions.

The test was requested by the election watchdog group Black Box Voting Inc., which offered to sponsor Hurstis participation but was caught off-guard when a spokesperson for the state publicly announced that California was hiring him directly, said Bev Harris, executive director of Black Box Voting, in Renton, Wash.

Click here to read more about paper ballots from columnist David Coursey.

"Were just sort of mystified," Harris said. "They committed [Hursti] before we had gotten an approval from him."

Because some election officials have unfettered access to voting machines for as much as two weeks prior to an election, Black Box Voting sought similar conditions for the test, Harris said.

The parties are trying to negotiate an agreement, and Harris said she hopes the test will be conducted at midmonth.

Concern over electronic voting vulnerabilities has spurred 25 states to enact regulations requiring voter-verified paper records, according to Verified Voting Foundation Inc., in San Francisco.

In California, all electronic voting machines must have a paper ballot backup in time for next Junes primary.

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