02 October 2006

Editorial: Cheating the machine
The perils of electronic voting go on display

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - October 02, 2006

It would be a terrible irony if the United States, having bet blood and money on making Iraq a democracy to transform the Middle East, should see democracy become dysfunctional at home. Yet a time bomb is ticking away that threatens to explode the integrity of the American electoral system.

The mechanism at issue seems innocuous, so much so that many people don't take the threat seriously. After the debacle of the hanging chads and much else in the 2000 presidential election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which required states to replace the patchwork of old voting machines with modern computerized systems.

The remedy may yet prove more dangerous than the disease -- and on Thursday Congress got a compelling demonstration of why.

Appearing before the House Administration Committee, Edward W. Felten, a professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University, showed how he could put a virus on an electronic voting machine -- a Diebold AccuVote-TS -- so that it would wrongly record votes. He said he purchased keys to the unit on the Internet.

As it happens, Allegheny County eventually settled on iVotronic touchscreen machines, although a newer version from Diebold was chosen by 16 Pennsylvania counties, including Armstrong and Washington. But while Diebold is more controversial than most, electronic machines from other companies are also vulnerable to tampering. Mr. Felten's dramatic display merely backed up the reports made by other experts.

If electronic machines printed paper receipts that could be verified by the voter and then collected, that would settle many post-election arguments and boost public confidence. Unfortunately, in Pennsylvania at least, that has been rejected, because such backups would supposedly violate the privacy of voters and offend state law and the constitution.

But the greater right is for voters to have their ballots counted accurately. What is needed is state and federal law to fix the law that was supposed to fix the problem. The time bomb is ticking. If there's another great controversy like 2000, the fury of the aggrieved will be greater and they won't be so easily dismissed as sore losers. With the problems of electronic voting exposed, they may look more like sore winners.


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