Voting Problems Emerge As Early Ballots Are Cast Early voting has started in some parts of the country in the lead up to the Nov. 4 election. While voting has gone smoothly in many areas, some voters have already encountered defective machines.

Voting Problems Emerge As Early Ballots Are Cast

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. Early voting is underway in some parts of the country, Florida, Georgia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Nevada. At least 30 states have some form of early voting, allowing people to cast their ballot before November 4th.

In Florida, the Associated Press reports unprecedented numbers of early voters, and that has prompted calls for additional equipment and an extended early-voting schedule. According to the AP, about 150 thousand people cast ballots Monday and Tuesday, the first two days of early voting in Florida.

Joining me now to talk more about what's happening in the Sunshine State today, the home of hanging chads and other election-night drama is David Hunt, he's a reporter covering politics for The Florida Times-Union talking to us from a polling station in downtown Jacksonville. Welcome to Science Friday.

Mr. DAVID HUNT (Reporter, The Florida Times-Union): Good afternoon.

FLATOW: How's it been going there today?

Mr. HUNT: Today, actually it's been pretty surprising. Despite this being the worst day weather wise this week - there's a lot of rain - there was more than 6000 voters that showed up citywide today, pushing the total over 50,000. And from what the election director here has just told me, we're on pace right now to have more early voters show up this election, than we have in every election going back to 2006 combined.

FLATOW: Combined?

Mr. HUNT: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: What do you think would have happened if everybody had waited to the last day, could you have handled all that voting in one day like other states are going to have to do?

Mr. HUNT: Oh, sure. There would have been really long lines, I mean, even at our early voting station there's been lines long enough for some people who we've interviewed for the paper have said, you know, I showed up early to save time, and stood in line for two and a half hours. So, we would have had quite a bottleneck at the polls, had it not been for this process.

FLATOW: At least now, you can say, I'll come back tomorrow or next week.

Mr. HUNT: Sure.

FLATOW: Yeah. What about the new electronic voting machines? Any problems with those that you have seen, or have heard about around the state?

Mr. HUNT: Right. Well, in Duval County here, we - our issue seem to be sort of a human error issue earlier this week. Early voting works a little bit different than the November-4th election, in that then they'll have ballots printed out by a professional printer that'll be quality tested. Here there's fewer polling stations to save time and money.

And some of the ballots are printed on demand. So, they didn't print out quite right, and some of them didn't scan in our OpScan machines. So, there are somewhere around 100 ballots that are sort of on hold right now, waiting for a canvassing board to review them, recreate them, and have them counted with the final count.

FLATOW: Are they filled out by hand with a pen and a marking spot on the page?

Mr. HUNT: Sure. This is sort of like the old-standardized-testing score procedure. They fill them out with a - you know, a bubble sheet, and then it runs through a machine that tallies the votes.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And so you can always just have them hanging around, and recount them when you need to.

Mr. HUNT: Right. And that's part of the security issue down here, is that with electronic voting, a lot of people were really skeptical of the touch-screen machines and other things like that, where they felt that they were punching a button in there, their vote was basically going off into cyberspace somewhere.

With these, you have a paper representation of what you - of your ballot behind, if in fact the recall is needed, or if somebody needs to review their vote.

FLATOW: Or if the papers doesn't fit the machine, like some of those (unintelligible) ballots though.

Mr. HUNT: Sure. Well, that's why the canvassing board, it's going to look at those, recreate them. And that's just procedure on these things.

FLATOW: Yeah. David, thank you very much. Good luck to you.

Mr. HUNT: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: David Hunt is a reporter covering politics for The Florida Times-Union down there in Florida. We've been talking about problems with voting machines here on Science Friday for at least the last four years, maybe. I'm sure it's got to be longer than that. Certainly since the hanging-chad debacle, and since then Congress has passed the Help America Vote Act, and millions of dollars have been spent on upgrading - well, maybe at least changing the voting machines all over the country.

Gone are the levers of old and the hole-punching gizmos, and in this election those people in the country will be voting using either an optical scan ballot, the kind that David was talking about, that's the kind we fill in those little dots like on the SAT forms, or the direct recording electronic that's called a DRE.

And those are those touch-screen machines, like your bank ATM, that may or not - may not give you a paper record of your vote, and something that seems, according to David, to be scaring some of the people voting, because they don't know who has - he says, where you're vote goes? So, have we gotten a little better?

Are we doing it more correctly this time? A record turnout, we saw that's what they're expecting in Florida. Some voters heading to the polls early. We're seeing scattered reports of some problems with some touch screen machines not working properly, some registering the wrong voting choice, you press one and pops - and the other one pops up.

Are we going to be spending election night again waiting to find out if the voting technology we used actually worked? Is electronic voting any better? Is it any more reliable than those old lever machines? Joining me now to talk more about it are my guests, Avi Rubin, professor of computer science and the technical director for the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins. He's on the phone from his office. Welcome back to the program, Dr. Rubin.

Dr. AVI RUBIN (Director, National Science Foundation): Thanks a lot, Ira. It's nice to be back.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Dan Wallach is associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at Rice University. He's also manager of the computer science security lab there. And he joins us from the Rice University's Baker Institute For Public Policy in Houston. Thanks for talking with us today.

Professor DAN WALLACH (Department of Computer Science, Rice University): Pleasure to be here.

FLATOW: Dr. Rubin and Dr. Wallach are director and associate director respectively of the National Science Foundation's ACCURATE project. That stands for A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable, and Transparent Elections. If you like to talk about voting - electronic voting, our number is 1-800-989-8255. So, Avi, there you have it, a good case for having paper ballot.

Mr. RUBIN: You know, I think this illustrates exactly what we've been talking about. In the early voting, a lot of the times you get the kinks out, you get to test the system. And when you find things go wrong, you have an opportunity to address them that you wouldn't have this - you didn't have the early voting.

And in this case, if we had had the kind of problem that we had with a DRE machine which doesn't have any kind of paper record, it's not clear that there would have been the kind of recourse that there was in this case. In this case, we had those hundred ballots, and they can be recreated on correctly-printed ballots and then counted.

And the nice thing about the OpScan System is that you indeed have those paper ballots, and you can then count them however you need to, and recount them, and audit them.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Dan Wallach, I have seen as far as those accounts, some problems with these touch-screen TVs, where people think they're pushing one button, and the other one pops in.

Dr. WALLACE: Right. This is an issue that's sometimes called the calibration problem. Touch screens have to map from where you press on the screen physically to an actual part of the logical screen, and so they do a mathematical transformation. The calibration process has you touching some targets, and then they compute this transformation.

The problem is that what looks right for one viewer, might be wrong for another viewer. Maybe they were taller or shorter, and likewise maybe the person who calibrated it was touching with one part of their finger, and the person using it is touching with a different part of their finger.

All of these issues can lead to some of the confusion, where people think they're pressing one candidate, and it selects the other. You know, voters could be advised to, if it doesn't work, try aiming high, and if that doesn't work, try aiming low, and see if you can figure it out, but not everybody is going to be able to do that.

FLATOW: Does the machine ask you to verify what you've chosen?

Dr. WALLACE: The machine will, you know, (unintelligible) will check or mark an X or something next to the candidate you've selected, and not everybody is going to recognize that it's selected the right or wrong candidate. There's usually a summary screen at the end, it gives you a list of all of the candidates you voted for.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. WALLACE: And we did some experiments here at Rice where we manipulated that, and 63 percent of our testers - of our tester voters didn't notice when we changed things around on the summary screen. But unfortunately that mechanism, while it's a great idea, doesn't work as well in practice as you'd like.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So, if you're a voter and you aren't used to dealing with computers, especially one that does - that has a touch screen on it, could voting on a touch screen be a problem for you?

Dr. WALLACE: Oh, definitely. The touch screens are going to be less usable by people who are less comfortable with computers.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. How is - I'm going to ask both of you. How is that here we are, and we are - many years later, we're still having these problems with electronic voting machines. Avi, want to hit that first?

Dr. RUBIN: Sure. Sure. I think, first of all, there's been a lot of education in the last several years about the issues of the electronic voting systems and many places are switching. And my home state of Maryland is in the process of switching for 2010, although we're going to use the touch screen in this election.

And I think it's just been a process of getting people to understand who maybe don't have the security background or the computer background, that while these machines may look nice and they make the job of administering the election a lot easier, there are all kinds of problems ranging from usability to security, and to the inability to perform audits.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We have a - some election officials have been critical of electronic voting machines. We have actually - have a video on our website from Nassau County in Long Island, with the Commissioner William Viamonte, who says that the problem with electronic voting versus the reliable old lever system, is that if you'd now depended on the voting-machine company for your parts and your service, you no longer rely on your own technicians who are mechanics, and they know how to fix those levers, they could swap the parts in and out faster than you could vote on them.

And now, you have to rely on a house call by the company, you have to get them on the phone. If they come down, they have to fix the machine.

Dr. RUBIN: Let me actually elaborate on that. I've worked as a poll worker in the last several elections, and I'll be working this time, too. And we had a representative from Diebold in our precinct. And when things went wrong, we asked them for help, and he didn't know how to do it, and I asked him how long he had been working for Diebold, and he said, this is my first day, at the elections.

So, they were going out and hiring contractors to assist with the election, who were starting to work there on Election Day.

FLATOW: My goodness.

Dr. WALLACH: So, let me follow on that as well.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. WALLACH: In addition to - with the lever machines, you could identify broken parts and replace them. Whereas with the electronic voting machines, if we found problems with the software, which is what we did as part of the California top-to-bottom review last summer, a group of computer scientists analyzed all these machines, and found a variety of problems. There are other studies from Ohio, Florida, and elsewhere.

The voting-machine vendors have not been able to get the repairs for these problems fielded yet, because they have to get the machines recertified and retested, and that takes a long time. So, we know about problems, and we can't get them fixed.

FLATOW: So, we're actually then leaving the voting process in the hands of the vendors.

Dr. RUBIN: That's right. And it's actually worse than that, because in the lever machines, and I have issues with lever machines as well, but since we're making a comparison, the number of parts that could possibly fail, and the number of things that you need to maintain is much smaller than in a large complex software-based system.

You know, most software-based systems look at your - whether it's your iPhone, or your laptop, or any other application, have regular bug releases and bug fixes. But you can't do this kind of bug fixing on a voting machine, and bugs will be discovered, because like Dan said, the machine will not be certified if you change the software.

And so you're kind of caught between a rock and a hard place, where you know that software bugs are going to become known, and in order to fix them, you would have to recertify the machine which is expensive and takes months.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. That's interesting. And we're going to come back and talk a lot more about the electronic-voting systems with Dr. Rubin and Dr. Wallach, and also bring on some extra guests. So stay with us, 1-800-989-8255.

Also on Second Life, you can go Science Friday Island, and watch me sit there talking to you and ask a question. We'll get it on the air as fast as we can. Don't go away, we'll be right back. I'm Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation Science Friday from NPR News.

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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News.

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FLATOW: You're listening to Talk of the Nation: Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about voting and the new electronic voting machines. Our guests are Avi Rubin, technical director for the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, David Wallach, manager of the Computer Security Lab at Rice University. Avi, are you saying then that we should do away with these electronic voting machines, and go back to mechanical ones that are easier to fix?

Dr. RUBIN: Well, no. I have some problems with lever machines. For one, they don't produce ballots just like the DREs don't, and they are not that easy to audit or to recount. What I think we should be using is what's being used in Florida right now, that was talked about at the beginning of the segment, which are paper ballots which are then optically scanned.

I think those have all of the security properties that you would want. They're easy to audit. They can reduce the lines at the polls.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. RUBIN: In my precinct, we're going to have long lines, because we only have so many Diebold machines. But with optical scan, you can have a lot of people filling out the ballots in parallel. And then they only have to spend a short amount of time at the scanner scanning in the ballots.

FLATOW: Mm-hm. Let me bring on now someone who is thinking out of the box in terms of this computer software, computer experts who have examined some of these voting machines, can tell you that the code goes into the programming - the programming in them, it's massive, I mean it's huge.

For some machines, the code can be 100,000 or more lines long, and that makes it difficult for other independent programmers to look at the code, and verify that it's tabulating votes accurately. But does the code have to be this long? My next guest has figured out a way to make it simpler. He has developed a software program called Pvote, based on open source.

Joining me now to talk more about it is Ka-Ping Yee. He's the developer of Pvote open-source voting-machine software which he's working on as part of his PhD thesis. And he joins us by phone from California. Thanks for having - taking time with us, Ping.

Mr. KA-PING YEE (Developer, Pvote Open-Source Voting-Machine Software): Thank you, Ira. Glad to be here.

FLATOW: How much shorter is your software?

Mr. YEE: So, the Pvote software that I developed is less than 500 lines of Python, and I made it that small, because it was my goal, just as like you were saying, to develop a simpler software that possibly could run a voting machine.

FLATOW: And can it be used on any voting machine?

Mr. YEE: It runs on a language called Python, which is open source and Python runs on Linux, or Windows, or Mac machines, so this would run on your PC at home for example.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. YEE: None of the voting machines that are out there, right now, actually run Python in the polling place.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. YEE: So this is really a project about what could happen in the future.

FLATOW: Why is yours so much shorter than the others?

Mr. YEE: Well, what I did to make the program simpler was to move complexity out of the voting machine. So, in a conventional voting machine, a lot of the software is responsible for drawing the images you'd see on the screen, the image of the ballot to be attached. And in Pvote, all that work happens in advance.

So it's sort of like the machine is just displaying, you have prepared a slideshow.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Mr. YEE: And it has two advantages. First, you have less software in the voting machine, which makes it easier to review. And second, you get an electronic sample ballot, so just like the sample ballot you get in the mail...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. YEE: Everyone has a chance to see exactly what they're going to see in the screen, before the election, so there's no surprises. And everybody gets to check if there's no mistakes in the ballot.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Dan Wallach, have you had a chance to look at Pvote?

Dr. WALLACH: Yes. So, I was actually - Ping invited a bunch of us to come out to help analyze this code. So Ping got, you know, five, six computer experts in a room for a couple of days, and what we did is we went over it line by line, and we're able to, you know, say, OK, what's going on here? How could we improve this here, and by virtue of the relative small size of Pvote, we were able to really wrap our brains around the whole thing.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So, it's not priority software, like the other machines on the market and being used this month are, or of this election period are. It's open source that anyone can go in and look at it.

Dr. WALLACH: Right. So what Ping has done is given it away to the whole world. Anybody who wants can take Pvote, and try to commercialize it if they'd like.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. YEE: I mean, at Rice, we've built a similar voting machine called Vote Box, which has a number of sophisticated cryptographic features that we could talk about later. But it's the same idea, anybody who wants can take the system that we've built, they can commercialize it, they could give it away for free, and, you know, we're trying to make the world a better place.

FLATOW: So, Ping, you're going to give it away?

Mr. YEE: Absolutely, yeah. I would love to see the voting-machine companies compete on simplicity. And I would be very happy for them to steal these ideas.

FLATOW: Well, thank you very much for taking time to be with us. Good luck to you.

Mr. YEE: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Ka-Ping Yee, who was - that was his masters - his PhD thesis was writing the software. And Dan, do you think it has any future?

Dr. WALLACH: I think that there are really two separate aspects of open source that I would like to see take off in the voting world. One is the notion that the software should be disclosed, in the same way that a book is disclosed, anybody can read it, but you can't necessarily copy it and republish it. The - it's important for the inner workings of the machinery of our democracy to be transparent, to be open, or to put in another way, trade secrecy shouldn't have a place in the machinery of democracy.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. WALLACH: A second aspect of openness is the idea that not only is the source code there for the world to read, but it's also there for people to modify and improve upon. And in that way, you'll not be holding to the vendor, you can fix it yourself, you can improve it yourself, and then what that means is, vendors have to compete, not based on the fact that they've locked you into a contract, but now they have to compete on other things.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to the phones, 1-800-989-8255. Rachel in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Hi.

RACHEL (Caller): Hi. Thank you for having me. I have three quick points. There's been a lot of talk about these e-machines, and how they've actually been looked at, and hackers can hack into them for ten minutes and they've been pulled off the market. That's all about all I've heard. I don't know what the e-machines actually are.

And a second point is that a lot of people worry about the machines themselves, but absentee ballot voting and provisional voting seems to be probably a hotter topic, as far as being disenfranchised and the actual electronic voting machine.

And as well, I mean, even if you believe that you can absentee vote, or you can use electronic machines and your vote will count, I think the major problem in voting in America today is right now, anyway, as far as disenfranchised voters, is probably just a purging system that's going on. And you mentioned Help America Vote Act, and I think a lot of that that was pushed into the administration, actually is causing a lot of disenfranchised voters. So I'd just like to hear your opinion.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Avi, have you got a comment?

Dr. RUBIN: Sure. I mean, that brings - the caller brings up a whole lot of points. And I think one thing that I would get out of this to address, is that the public in general tends to be very cautious and rightfully suspicious when it comes to elections, and using electronic voting systems where you can't really see what's going on in the machine, and you don't get to see your vote captured and your choices on a physical ballot, I think, is going to feed into that uncertainty.

FLATOW: And what about the reports this week of some machines being hacked?

Dr. RUBIN: I'm not familiar with those reports. I'm familiar with the Princeton report about - they did - it wasn't a hack, really. It was an analysis that they were asked to do to look at the Sequoia machine that's used in New Jersey, and they were able to open the machine and replace a chip on that machine with one that contains software that produced a different result for the election, or a fixed predetermined result by an attacker. So, this wasn't someone actually hacking a machine at an election.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Dr. RUBIN: It was a study or a demonstration that was done to show how vulnerable these systems are.

FLATOW: So, does that - does it appear from that study that somebody could go into that machine in a polling place and replace the chip?

Dr. RUBIN: Yeah. I mean, they did it. They have pictures of these voting machines sitting unsupervised in various places before the election, and there was nothing that was done in that study that couldn't be done in a realistic scenario, and so I think, it's a very troubling and scary situation that we're in, and I don't know the reason why we want a more auditable, and less automated, and less...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. RUBIN: And I should say, more transparent voting process.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Avi, I got just a couple of minutes left. Let me ask Dan and then you, Avi, are you fearful about the voting this year? About the machines, the reliability of the machines?

Dr. WALLACH: I would say that the number-one issue that is a pressing concern are the stories that we hear about vote flipping, you know, from West Virginia and other states, where it's not so much that the machine has been tampered with, nearly that the machines just aren't working very well. And say - blaming the voters, saying the voters aren't using it right, is the wrong answer. Usability is a property of the machines, and if the people can't use them, then the machines are at fault, not the users.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. WALLACH: I think that concern could potentially have a big impact. We might be looking at a repeat perhaps of the mess in Sarasota in 2006...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. WALLACH: When there were approximately a quarter-million votes cast in a congressional race, the margin of victory was 369.

But there were over 15,000 blank votes in that congressional race. That led to law suits, and it took a year before the losing candidate conceded the race.

FLATOW: Avi, what about the turnout? We heard earlier how Florida is going to set a record for turnout, is that going to be a problem mixing the huge turnout and the fact that these are all new systems for people?

Mr. RUBIN: Absolutely. I mean, that's a very dangerous combination. We have an expected turnout that's unprecedented, and at the same time, we're using technology that in many places is untested.

And in some places, for example, in 2006 in Maryland when we did test it and have a chance to use it, we ended up with a situation that was pretty bad and so, I am concerned that in many places the fact that we're going to have a lot more people than we've had in the past, and a system that may not be that resilient or that robust when faced with that many people, could lead to problems. I am hopeful that it won't, but I am little worried that it will.

FLATOW: Hmm. Well, if Florida had all those people showing up in two weeks of voting, how are they going to fit all those people in these other states into one day with the turnout ,you know?

Mr. RUBIN: That's a very good question.

FLATOW: Yeah. All right. We'll have to see. We're going to be up late and you expect a lot of lawsuits perhaps, challenging a lot of these votes. Avi Rubin and Dan Wallach, thank you for taking time to be with us.

Mr. RUBIN: Thanks a lot.

Mr. WALLACH: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Dan is manager of the Computer Security Lab at Rice University, and Avi is technical director for the Information Security Institute at Johns Hopkins. And Ka-Ping Yee is the developer of Pvote open-source-based voting-machine software.

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