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State's electronic voting machines face mass review
State's electronic voting machines face mass review
By: GIG CONAUGHTON - Staff Writer
SAN DIEGO -- California Secretary of State Debra Bowen Wednesday laid out details of the "top to bottom review" she plans for the state's often criticized electronic voting systems, a review that would include expert "penetration teams" who would try to hack into and sabotage machines.
Bowen said in a teleconference Wednesday that her office would contract with the University of California to conduct the $1.8 million review -- to assure voters their elections systems were "secure, accurate and reliable" -- and that she hoped it would be completed by late July.
That time frame could give heartburn to county election officials around the state.
By law, Bowen has to tell counties if she intends to decertify a ballot system at least six months before an election. California, meanwhile, just moved its presidential primary election up from June 2008 to February 2008. If the review of electronic systems is not finished until late July, counties could have little time to switch to paper or other ballot systems if necessary.
Bowen said the review could render three potential results: finding that the various electronic voting machines have no problems, that they do have problems that could be fixed if actions were taken, or that they can't be fixed and should be decertified.
"This (timing) is a major concern for San Diego as well as elections officials statewide," San Diego County interim Registrar of Voters Mischelle Townsend said Wednesday. "We have to recruit and train nearly 7,000 volunteer poll workers, and there are a multitude of tasks that must be started six to seven months ahead of the elections."
Townsend said elections officials two biggest nightmares were "uncertainty and ambiguity."
However, groups that have criticized San Diego County elections officials and the county's Diebold "touch-screen" electronic voting machines said they were pleased that Bowen had acted.
"We applaud Debra Bowen's commitment to California's voters," said Ken Simpkins, a Carlsbad attorney who unsuccessfully sued San Diego County last year to force it to put enough paper ballots at the polls to cover the county's 1.3 million voters. "We're pleased she's been able to expedite the process and get this done by July. That certainly provides enough time to prepare for the February primaries."
Many counties have moved to electronic voting systems in recent years after fiasco's with traditional "punch card" ballots were vilified in the 2000 Florida presidential elections between George Bush and Al Gore, where recounts introduced controversy over "hanging" and "dimpled" chads. However, as electronic systems have become more popular, so have suggestions that the machines can be tampered with and rigged to throw elections.
Bowen, meanwhile, announced in March that she intended to conduct the "first of its kind" review of the various electronic voting systems in the state -- even though those systems faced federal and state testing to become certified for use.
However, a number of voting machine venders and elections officials criticized the testing parameters Bowen proposed -- saying that they included areas that state and federal testing had not required, a "new set of requirements."
At Wednesday's teleconference, Bowen said she had changed the testing plans so that they would be the same as state and federal guidelines.
However, Bowen also said that the review would include the use of "penetration teams" -- groups of computer scientists and technology "experts" -- who would "attack" the various systems in an attempt to hack in and tamper with them.
Interestingly, Bowen said that Harri Hursti, a Finnish technology entrepreneur who has been embraced by electronic voting critics for hacking into and exposing weaknesses in some systems, would be included in the "penetration team."
Hursti told an advisory panel in Riverside in March that no electronic voting system could be made completely safe from large-scale fraud. He said that with enough time, a saboteur could upload a computer virus onto a voting machine that could spread from machine to machine and potentially rig an election.
Bowen rejected questions Wednesday that her review team could have made up their minds before the review takes place. She said that she had also included computer security experts that had no previous dealings with voting systems.
Townsend, who was Riverside County's Registrar of Voters for years and helped introduce an electronic voting system in that county in 2000 -- before the electronic voting debate began -- defended the machines. She said they were accurate and secure, and that there had never been an incident she knew of in the state to suggest otherwise.
Simpkins, however, disagreed. He said Hursti and others had proved otherwise, and would do so again in the upcoming review.
"These machines can be hacked into, that's the bottom line," Simpkins said. "I suspect there are going to be some problems."
-- Contact staff writer Gig Conaughton at (760) 739-6696 or [email protected].