Sunday, December 23, 2007

Broken Polls

NYT Editorial

Election officials hate to admit how vulnerable their voting systems are to errors and vote theft. The Ohio and Colorado secretaries of state, however, have recently spoken openly about the weaknesses of the voting machines used in their states — and are pushing to get them fixed. Election officials in other states, whose voting machines have similar vulnerabilities, should follow Ohio’s and Colorado’s lead.

Jennifer Brunner, Ohio’s new secretary of state, has been working to promote fair and honest elections, with particular attention to voting machines. She commissioned an expert study of the five kinds of voting systems used in Ohio. Her report, released on Dec. 14, revealed serious security flaws that could put the state’s elections in jeopardy.

Some are simple. For example, the locks used to secure machines and ballots can easily be picked. This is a problem critics of electronic voting have been pointing out for several years, but it has not been addressed. Other flaws are more technical, like the fact that the computer servers that tally the ballots are poorly guarded. An infiltrator could slip malicious computer software onto them, which could change the results of an election.

Ms. Brunner has made some good recommendations for how to proceed. Most important, she called for Cuyahoga County, the state’s most populous, to switch from touch-screen to optical scan machines, which read ballots that voters mark by hand, like a standardized test. Optical scans are far more trustworthy and cost-effective than touch screens — and they provide a record of each vote. On Friday, the county voted to make the switch.

In Colorado, Secretary of State Mike Coffman has decertified electronic voting machines and tabulating machines. Acting in response to a court ruling, Mr. Coffman confirmed critics’ charges that the machines are unreliable and too vulnerable to tampering. One model, he found, could be disabled if a voter passed a magnet over it. In another model, he found a 1 percent error rate in counting ballots, which is clearly unacceptable.

In both states, the burden is now on legislators and governors. There are battles looming over what steps are necessary to make voting secure, and how much should be spent on them. This may mean short-term uncertainty, but it is better than letting the problems fester, perhaps throwing doubt on next year’s elections.

Other states have election systems that are far worse than those of Ohio and Colorado. A significant number of states still use touch-screen voting machines that do not produce paper trails, paper records that can be audited to double-check the results recorded on the computers. These systems are simply too unreliable to trust, given what is now known about electronic voting.

Election officials across the country should be asking the sort of tough questions Ms. Brunner and Mr. Coffman have. In 2000, the nation only confronted the flaws in its voting technology after a presidential election was irreparably harmed. With just under a year to go before the next presidential election, the time to fix these problems is now.

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