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Five months before the presidential primary start - we don't know who will win, which is normal - but we also don't know how some people will cast their ballots. That's not normal. California's secretary of state last week decertified voting machines used in 39 counties because of security concerns. Questions have also been raised about voting equipment in Florida and New Jersey and elsewhere.
NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER: California Secretary of State Debra Bowen said recent tests reveal 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.
Ms. DEBRA BOWEN (California Secretary of State): When NASA discovers a flaw or a potential safety concern in the space shuttle, it doesn't continue launching. It scrubs the mission and fixes the problem.
FESSLER: But Bowen's decision has left county officials stunned as they try to figure out whether they need new voting machines before the state's February 5th primary. Many are upset because they believe the tests were done under unrealistic conditions. And they say there's no guarantee that paper ballots, which Bowen prefers, are more secure.
California isn't the only place facing uncertainty. New Jersey officials are struggling 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.
Professor PENNY VENETIS (Rutgers University): This is a grand opportunity to do things right.
FESSLER: Penny Venetis is a Rutgers University law professor representing voting activists in the state. They are pushing to scrap New Jersey's 10,000 touch-screen machines, called Direct Recording Electronic Devices, or DREs, and to replace them with paper ballots and optical scan equipment.
Prof. VENETIS: 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 hackable and that the printers don't work and that the printers are hackable.
FESSLER: 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 Florida State University study has found 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 says investigators discovered that someone with access to the optical scan machines can make changes that would affect the election results.
Mr. KURT BROWNING (Florida Secretary of State): And the key is that it would have gone on, quote, "undetected," where you could come in at 2:00 o'clock in the morning, make modifications, and no one would have ever known that you were in there doing it.
FESSLER: He is giving Debold, the company that makes the machines, until August 17th to fix the problem, and he's confident it will do so. 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 voting.
Mr. BROWNING: 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 are accurate and secure really worth the effort? We're being pulled away from what we ought to be doing, and that's conducting good elections.
FESSLER: Many local officials say they are frustrated there have been so many changes. In part they blame federal legislation that impose 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 at NYU Law School, thinks the debate over the need for a paper backup is largely over.
Mr. LARRY NORDEN (NYU Law School): The debate that we have only started to have is how we use that paper to make voting systems more secure and more reliable.
FESSLER: His group recommends thorough audits to verify election results.
Mr. NORDEN: Paper by itself isn't going to prevent a programming error. It isn't going to prevent software bugs. Just having some kind of paper that voters look at isn't going to prevent somebody from hacking into the electronic totals.
FESSLER: 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.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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