Months before the first presidential primary, state election officials are considering how voters will cast their ballots.
California Secretary of State Debra Bowen last week decertified voting machines used in 39 counties because of concerns electronic voting machines are vulnerable to hackers.
Bowen said recent tests revealed that the state's electronic voting machines are still vulnerable to hackers. So she's prohibiting their use next year unless security measures are put in place. Even then, touch-screen voting machines will be restricted to one per precinct.
"When NASA discovers a flaw or a potential safety concern in the space shuttle, it doesn't continue launching missions. It scrubs the mission and fixes the problem," Bowen said.
But Bowen's decision has left county officials stunned, as they try to figure out whether they need new voting systems before the state's Feb. 5, 2008 primary. Many are upset because they believe the tests were done under unrealistic conditions. And they say there's no guarantee paper ballots (which Bowen prefers) are more secure.
Questions raised about voting equipment elsewhere
California isn't the only place facing uncertainty. New Jersey officials are struggling to comply with a state requirement that touch-screen machines be retrofitted with paper records to allow voters to verify their ballots.
But questions have also been raised about the reliability of those paper audit trails.
"This is a grand opportunity to do things right," said Penny Venetis, a Rutgers University law professor representing voting activists in New Jersey.
The activists are pushing to scrap New Jersey's 10,000 touch-screen machines — called direct-recording electronic devices, or DREs — and replace them with paper ballots and optical scan equipment.
"It is a waste of taxpayer money to spend the money on retrofitting the DREs when the system is inherently imperfect and study after study reveals that the machines are eminently hack-able and the printers don't work, and the printers are hack-able" Venetis said.
A judge last week ordered state officials to come up with plans to replace the touch-screen machines, in case concerns about the printers aren't resolved by a January deadline.
To further complicate matters, a new study by Florida State University shows security flaws in the optical scan machines that Florida plans to use next year. It's replacing touch-screen voting equipment purchased after the 2000 election.
Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning said investigators discovered that someone with access to the optical scan machines could make changes that would affect election results.
"And the key is that it would have gone on 'undetected' — whereas you could have come in at 2 o'clock in the morning and make modifications and no one would have known that you were doing it," Browning said.
He's given Diebold, the company that makes the machines, until Aug. 17th to fix the problem. Browning is one of many election officials who believe security problems with electronic voting have been overblown, but who have given in to demands to replace touch-screen machines.
"I think you really have to assess: Is the amount of time that you're spending defending these systems, or trying to prove to the public that they're accurate and secure, really worth the effort?" he said. "And really, we're being pulled away from what we ought to be doing — and that's conducting good elections."
Changes must include more than paper back-up
Many local officials say they're frustrated that there have been so many changes. In part, they blame federal legislation that imposed deadlines for getting rid of punch-card machines after the 2000 election without leaving time to test the new technology.
Congress is now considering bills that would require all states to use some kind of paper-backed system, as early as 2010.
Larry Norden, an electronic-voting expert with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, thinks the debate over the need for a paper back-up is largely over.
"The debate we've only started to have is how we use that paper to make voting systems more secure and more reliable," Norden said.
His group recommends thorough audits to verify the election results.
"Paper by itself isn't going to prevent a programming error. It isn't going to prevent software bugs. Just having a piece of paper isn't gong to prevent someone from hacking into the electronic totals," he added.
But the audit proposal is also running into resistance, with some election officials saying they're under such tight deadlines it's almost impossible to do one before the winners are certified.