E-Voting Problems Expected

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WASHINGTON -- This year's Presidential election could have balloting snafus like those in Florida in 2000, if more ATM-like electronic voting systems replace punch-card systems in voting booths across the country, experts warned at a hearing of the Environment, Technology and Standards Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science.

The federal government has not done enough since 2000 to preclude the possibility of more voting irregularities in 2004, federal and state elections officials told the subcommittee.

This is despite legislation passed in 2002, the Help America Vote Act, which gives states money to replace punch-card voting systems with new electronic voting systems and implement new testing and certification standards.

But far from being the silver bullet the federal government sought, electronic voting systems come with a new set of problems.

Voters Are Wary

The public is increasingly suspicious that e-voting systems are just as prone to malfunction and fraud as the old punch-card voting systems were in the 2000 elections, witnesses and panelists said.

"We have a potential for a repeat of 2000 in 2004," said Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colorado). "If there are any problems in November, we will spend years rebuilding the public's confidence in our voting systems. We need to ensure that voters can depend on the voting equipment they use to be safe and reliable."

Little progress has occurred under the Help America Vote Act because the National Institute of Standards, charged to develop and certify e-voting standards, received no additional funding for the job, said Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Michigan), subcommittee chair. Ehlers vowed to push for more funding.

"We must resolve this issue soon because states are already receiving billions of federal dollars under HAVA to modernize their voting systems," Ehlers said. "It is crucial that voting systems be easy to use, accurate, verifiable, secure, and reliable."

Even if the new federal certification standards could be developed in time for the November 2 election, the states could probably not implement the changes in time.

"We are really less safe from fraud and malfunction now than we were 25 years ago, and possibly less safe than we were in 2000," said Dr. Michael Shamos, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. "The system is much more out of control than anyone here may be willing to admit."

States Act

A significant portion of the electorate will vote electronically using ATM-like voting machines or optically scanned ballots. But a number of incidents have eroded confidence that the systems can ensure every vote is counted fairly, witnesses noted.

Diebold Election Systems' Accuvote TSx was decertified for use in California due to system malfunction or failure during presidential primary voting in March. Some of the e-voting systems that malfunctioned had satisfied existing federal standards.

Six weeks after that primary election, the state released its own standards for e-voting machines that require a paper backup for every vote cast electronically.

Similar controversies have occurred in Florida and Virginia elections during the past year. Others have called on Congress to act.

Electronic voting technology is relatively new, serviced by a small field of private vendors that includes Sequoia Voting Systems, RS&S, MicroVote, and Hart InterCivic.

Shamos says the responsibility of assuring the viability of these systems has fallen too much on the vendors themselves, rather than more objective regulatory bodies.

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