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E-voting flaws put Florida in spotlight again
Robert Lemos, SecurityFocus 2007-01-08

The U.S. House of Representatives seated Florida Republican Vern Buchanan last Thursday, essentially ending a contested election that has refocused attention on electronic voting machines and flaws in the widely adopted election technology.

In November's midterm elections, Buchanan edged out Democratic challenger Christine Jennings in the race for Florida's Congressional District 13 by a slim margin of 369 votes, according to the election results certified by the state. However, Jennings and some voters in Sarasota County, the most populous county in the congressional district, have filed lawsuits contesting the results.

The problem? A statistically improbable number of people in the pro-Jennings county--about 18,000 or 13 percent of all voters--failed to register a choice in the race. An undervote--as such failures are dubbed--seldom occurs in those numbers. While many people decide not to vote for any candidate in a race, high rates of undervoting usually happen only in the less publicized races. Voters fail to vote in major races generally far less than 5 percent of the time, according to voting experts.

Moreover, voters that did not use the county's election machines had a typical chance of not voting in the race, failing to make a selection only 2.5 percent of the time. On the e-voting machines used by the county, however, the story was different: Nearly 15 percent of the people who used the iVotronic systems manufactured by Election Systems & Software failed to vote in the Representative race.

"Both sides agree that thousands of votes were not counted and that those lost votes changed the outcome of this race," Kendall Coffey, attorney for the Jennings campaign, said in a statement. “We need to find out exactly what suppressed those votes, and we feel that the rights of Florida’s voters to have their votes count – and be counted accurately – is paramount in this case."

It's a result that even the winner could not dismiss. In a statement issued last week, Buchanan asked Jennings to acknowledge that he won the election but noted that the evidence did point to problems with the race.

"As with the 2000 presidential outcome, it is likely to go down as another botched election due to a combination of flawed ballot design, voter error and voter protest," Buchanan stated. "With no paper trail, it is impossible to discern the precise reason for the 18,000 Sarasota non-votes in this race. It is an unknown that is impossible to discover."

E-voting machines have been the target of a great deal of criticism, in part because the technology has been adopted quickly in an attempt to solve problems seen in the 2000 election with punchcard voting machines, but also because electronic voting systems are generally based on a personal computer architecture and use software that has not adequately been tested for security vulnerabilities. While many detractors of the technology focus on the danger of fraud posed by the machines, actual election day complaints regarding the systems have to date amounted to mechanical defects, software failures, or administration problems.

While such problems create distrust among voters, it's the more systematic issues of secretive certification, poor security checking and the lack of a software-independent method of auditing that concerns experts. The New York Times reported on Thursday that the federal government had blocked Ciber, a major e-voting system certification lab, from certifying any more systems as of last summer. Security researchers have repeated pointed out flaws in the system software of e-voting machines, especially those manufactured by Diebold Election Systems.

Last month, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, government agency that recommends technological standards, told election administrators that states should not rely on electronic voting machines that have no way to independently verify the tally. The report moved away from discussing specific requirements, such as paper audit trails, and instead couches security concerns in terms of the dependence of vote verification on a system's software.

"I thought they hit the nail right on the head," Avi Rubin, computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University and the director of A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable, and Transparent Elections (ACCURATE), said in an interview at the time. "I think software independence is the right metric to use when discussing a voting system."

In the Sarasota election, however, the machines are not likely the primary reason for the massive undervote, experts said.

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