Monday, June 27, 2005

GAO Releases First of Scheduled Election Reports

Elections: Additional Data Could Help State and Local Elections Officials Maintain Accurate Voter Registration Lists, GAO-05-478, June 10, 2005

Highlights-PDFPDFAccessible Text

Reports of ineligible persons registering to vote raised concerns about state processes for verifying voter registration lists. States base voter eligibility generally on the voter's age, U.S. citizenship, mental competence, and felon status. Although states run elections, Congress has authority to affect the administration of elections. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) sets a deadline for states to have a statewide voter registration list and list verification procedures. For this report, GAO selected seven states (AZ, CA, MI, NY, TX, VA, and WI) to represent a range of characteristics relevant to voter registrations, such as whether a statewide voter list existed prior to HAVA. This report discusses how these states verify voter registration eligibility; the challenges they face in maintaining accurate voter lists; the progress toward implementing HAVA registration requirements; and identifies federal data sources that might be used to help verify voter registration eligibility.

The methods used in seven selected states to verify voter eligibility and ensure accuracy of voter registration lists were varied and include relying on registrant self attestation, return mailings, and checking against lists of felony convictions or deceased individuals. Election officials from the selected states described some challenges that may be resolved when HAVA is fully implemented, such as reducing duplicates within the state. Other challenges--identifying duplicate registrations in other states or having insufficient information to match other data sources with voter registration lists--may continue to be issues. The seven states are in different phases of implementing HAVA statewide voter registration lists and eligibility verification requirements. Arizona implemented its statewide voter list by the January 1, 2004, deadline, and the other six states applied for a January 1, 2006, waiver. Of those six states, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin awarded contracts to develop new voter lists that are designed to address HAVA requirements. Michigan has had a statewide list since 1998, and officials believe it is near HAVA compliant. California election officials are still considering how to meet these HAVA requirements, and in New York, legislation was passed in May 2005 to create the state voter registration lists. Federal data sources have the potential to help state election officials identify registrants who may be convicted felons or non-citizens. While the potential number identified may be small, an election can be decided by a few votes. Regarding felons, U.S. Attorneys are required to notify state election officials of federal felony convictions, but the information was not always easy for election officials to interpret or complete. Federal jury services generally do not now, but might feasibly be able to notify elections officials when potential jurors drawn from local voter registration lists claim to be non-citizens.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Congress called on to fix problems

By ANN McFEATTERS
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON — Nearly five years after the 2000 election chaos, angry citizen groups are still storming Capitol Hill demanding change, task forces and special commissions are still churning out reports on fraud, and lawmakers are still vowing “never again” will America show the world elections marred by voting irregularities.

Because of the widespread lack of confidence in the vote count of 2000, two years later Congress passed the Help America Vote Act and appropriated $3 billion to improve the system.

But that was followed by the voting problems of 2004, which resulted in long lines at some polling stations, thousands of discarded challenged ballots, and massive confusion in many precincts. There were more hearings in Congress and more studies and commissions on how to reform the way America votes.

The problems with voting machines, voting procedures, identification, and timing of elections have spawned an industry of election-reform experts who have set up Web sites, newsletters, activist groups, and lobbying efforts all in the pursuit of change.

Dozens of states have voted for or are considering hundreds of proposals for change. At the federal level there is enormous confusion and disagreement on what should be done.

Advocates for change argue that if nothing is done this year, congressional elections could take place in an atmosphere of suspicion with a lack of voter participation.

This past week a task force of state and local election officials released a 72-page report of recommendations for change, such as scrapping neighborhood precincts and the quadrennial first-Tuesday-in-November Election Day. Instead, “vote centers” would be set up where voters could cast their ballots over a period of weeks.

In mid September another commission, headed by former president Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state James Baker, is to report to the nation on its findings of what election reforms are needed. It is considering recommendations involving voting machines, timing of elections, how people vote - perhaps by mail or on the Internet - and how better to train poll workers.


From June 9 to 14, lobbyists are spreading out over Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to require that all electronic machine voting have a voter-verified paper trail to reassure voters their ballots are cast and counted.

Of more than a dozen proposals pending on Capitol Hill, many say that restoring a paper trail is the most likely to pass. Proponents say electronic voting has moved the country away from transparent elections. David Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford University, told the Carter-Baker commission in April that paperless ballots mean voters "have no means to confirm that that the machines have recorded their votes correctly, nor will they have any assurance that their votes won't be changed later."

Despite the argument that the nation has been slow to change voting procedures, big changes are coming. By January all states are required by the 2002 law to have computerized, state-wide databases of registered voters. But a survey by electionline,org, a nonpartisan, nonadvocacy Web site that gathers information on election reform, said that every state's database will be different. Some will be good, some won't, and some won't be ready.

Another new provision of the law that will go into effect in less than seven months will require states that use voting machines to have technological and accessibility standards. But everyone agrees enormous problems remain there too.

For example, Ohio has gone through a years-long battle between county election boards and the secretary of state over everything from the type of voting machines to buy, to who pays for providing the new machines with paper trails, to the weight of ballot paper.

The report by the National Association of Election Officials this past week predicted the new provisions of the law will not be enforced as they should be. It said many problems in 2004 stemmed from an "unrealistic" expectation that an underfunded federal law, way behind schedule, would provide uniformity.

The report said there will be "substantial difficulty" meeting the January deadlies.

Jeffrey Zaino, vice president for the American Arbitration Association's department of elections, oversees hundreds of elections every year for unions, associations, colleges, and corporations. He said technology is not the big problem but inadequate or improper training for 1.4 million Election Day volunteers at 198,000 polling places.

He admits it is not easy to solve. Most Election Day workers only report for duty once or twice a year. And many have little computer experience.

At the federal level, The Century Fund, which co-sponsored the National Commission on Election Reform after the 2000 election, co-chaired by former presidents Gerald Ford and Carter, reports the 2002 law is not working as it should. Worse, the Century Fund said the 2004 election revealed "a deeply flawed voting system that in many ways has become more complicated and prone to abuse" than in 2000 because the new law led to more obstacles in voting.

Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said "tens of thousands" of voters still contact his office to express anger that "once again, their vote did not count." He held a hearing specifically on widespread 2004 problems in Ohio. President Bush received 286 electoral votes, 16 more than the 270 needed to win. Without Ohio, he would not have won.

Mr. Conyers insists most Americans want "real election reform," but he is not encouraged, saying congressional Republicans and Democrats remain far apart.

"Unless we act, the next close election will prompt the same debates and public confidence in our democracy will suffer a potentially fatal blow," Mr. Conyers told constituents.

Mr. Zaino, who has overseen thousands of private elections for 15 years, says that in a nation where the presidential election was decided in a state (Ohio) that has some counties that still use punch cards and where a major swing state (Pennsylvania) still has one-fourth of its voters using old-fashioned optical scanning machines, major changes probably won't occur until Congress gets more involved.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Test shows voter fraud is possible

Machines are vulnerable to manipulation

By Tony Bridges

All it takes is the right access.

Get that, and an election worker could manipulate voting results in the computers that read paper ballots - without leaving any digital fingerprints.

That was the verdict after Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho invited a team of researchers to look for holes in election software.

The group wasn't able to crack the Diebold system from outside the office. But, at the computer itself, they changed vote tallies, completely unrecorded.

Sancho said it illustrates the need for tight physical security, as well as a paper trail that can verify results, which the Legislature has rejected.

Black Box Voting, the non-profit that ran the test and published a report on the Internet, pointed to the findings as proof of an elections system clearly vulnerable to corruption.

But state officials in charge of overseeing elections pooh-poohed the test process and dismissed the group's report.

"Information on a blog site is not viable or credible," said Jenny Nash, a spokeswoman for the Department of State.

It went like this:

Sancho figured Leon County's security could withstand just about any sort of probing and wanted to prove it.

He went to one of the most skeptical - and vocal - watchdogs of election procedures. Bev Harris, founder of Black Box Voting, had experience with voting machines across the country.

She recruited two computer-security experts and made the trip to Tallahassee from her home in Washington state three times between February and late May.

Leon County is one of 30 counties in Florida that use Diebold optical scanners. Voters darken bubbles on a sheet of paper, sort of like filling in the answers on the SAT, and the scanners read them and add up the numbers.

So the task was simple. Get in, tamper with vote numbers, and get out clean.

They made their first attempts from outside the building. No success.

Then, they sat down at the vote-counting computers, the sort of access to the machines an employee might have. For the crackers, security protocols were no problem, passwords unnecessary.

They simply went around them.

After that, the security experts accomplished two things that should not have been possible.

They made 65,000 votes disappear simply by changing the real memory card - which stores the numbers - for one that had been altered.

And, while the software is supposed to create a record whenever someone makes changes to data stored in the system, it showed no evidence they'd managed to access and change information.

When they were done, they printed the poll tapes. Those are paper records, like cash register tape, that show the official numbers on the memory cards.

Two tapes, with different results. And the only way to tell the fake one?

At the bottom, it read, "Is this real? Or is it Memorex?"

"That was troubling," Sancho said.

Leon County more secure

A disaster?

Not exactly.

In Leon County, access to the machines is strictly controlled, limited to a single employee. The memory cards are kept locked away, and they're tracked by serial number.

Those precautions help prevent any tampering.

"You've got to have security over the individual who's accessing the system," Sancho said. In fact, "you've got to have good security and control over every step of this process."

The trouble is, not every county is as closely run.

In Volusia County, her group has found what they think was memory-card tampering during the 2000 election. More than 16,000 votes for Al Gore vanished.

Harris said her research turned up memos - obtained from the elections supervisor's office - that blamed the failure on an extra memory card that showed up, and disappeared, without explanation.

She believes that was an attempt to change the outcome of the election, but one carried out clumsily. The test in Leon County proved it was possible, if done by more experienced computer programmers, she said.

So what does the Department of State say?

Nash, the spokeswoman, said that the Diebold systems were designed to be used in secure settings, and that, by giving the testers direct access to the computers, Sancho had basically allowed them to bypass security.

In other words, not much of a test.

Except that the security experts were given only as much opportunity as any other election worker would have. Less so, considering that Sancho did not provide them with passwords or any other way to actually get into the programming.

As for the exact vulnerabilities that Harris reported - and Sancho confirmed - Nash said no one from the state could comment, since they hadn't been present at the test.

She added later that Sancho could request help from state certifiers if he had concerns, but had not asked yet.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Help stop irregularities in voting

By Carol McBrian

On March 31, a group of university statisticians led by Josh Mitteldorf of Temple University issued a troubling report.

They noted that while President Bush officially won by 2.5 percent of the popular vote, the exit polls showed John Kerry winning by 3 percent. According to the statisticians, the chances of a discrepancy this large are close to 1 in a million.

Exit polls have proved to be exceptionally accurate in the U.S., in Ukraine, in Latin America and elsewhere. The 2004 discrepancy, like that of the invalid Ukraine election, was five times the usual discrepancy, a significant difference. The statisticians' report concludes that this discrepancy "is an unanswered question of vital national importance that needs thorough investigation."

Alarming as this information may be, it came as no surprise to those of us familiar with the work of Bev Harris, the Web-surfing grandmother whose book, "Black Box Voting," gives example after example of abuses by the voting machine industry, all meticulously documented:

In 2002, voting machines said Jerry Mayo lost his race for commissioner of Clay County, Kan. However, a manual recount found he had won with 76 percent of the vote.

In 2000, an optical scanning machine in an Iowa county was fed 300 ballots, but reported 4 million votes. "We don't have 4 million voters in the state of Iowa," one auditor commented.

In 1996, Chuck Hagel, an executive with the AIS voting machine company, left his job two weeks before entering the Nebraska Senate race - which was counted by AIS. Hagel never disclosed this connection, which was finally discovered shortly before Hagel's re-election in 2002.

When Hagel's opponent asked for a vote audit and offered to pay for it, he was told that there was "no provision in the law" for such an audit.

These examples don't cover the worst possibility - corruption in a paperless electronic machine where there is no way to check the original ballots.

In response to these and other abuses, voting reform groups have sprung up around the nation, including the Eugene group Truth in Voting. We are trying to get election reform legislation passed before the 2006 elections.

Our members have studied and discussed the various voting reform bills. We also considered the recommend- ations of the Verified Voting Web site, which is dedicated to obtaining voter-verified paper ballots for all state and national elections involving electronic voting machines.

Our favorite bill was the Count Every Vote Act, introduced by Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. This far-reaching bill has provisions for preventing conflict of interest from voting machine companies; creating consistent, transparent standards for states wishing to purge voter rolls; providing special machines for disabled voters; and requiring voter-verified paper ballots.

The scope of this bill would make it costly and difficult to implement by 2006 - so we decided to put our support behind the bills recommended by Verified Voting.

In the House, we are supporting the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act. It contains many of the provisions of the Count Every Vote Act, but does not address purging voter rolls, and it has less ambitious provisions for disabled voters. Still, it is a good bill, with 134 co-sponsors, including our own Rep. Peter DeFazio.

In the Senate, we support the Voter Integrity and Verification Act, which would require a voter-verified paper ballot and mandate that it be the ballot of record in the case of any audits or recounts. That is all it would do. However, this bill has the best chance of coming to the Senate floor, where senators could propose amendments to address other election issues.

Free elections are a cornerstone of our democracy. But when our votes are not accurately counted, our elections lose their meaning. These bills would increase the accuracy and integrity of our elections.

Encourage Sens. Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith to co-sponsor the Voter Integrity and Verification Act. Thank DeFazio for co-sponsoring Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act. Log onto our Web site (www .truthinvoting.org) to learn more.

Truth in Voting was formed in response to the many reports of irregularities in last November's election. Our mission is "to reform our voting system, nationwide ... by ensuring ... the right of all citizens to equal, unimpeded access to voting (and) that all votes are cast on paper ballots, and counted in a public, transparent, accurate and verifiable way."