This fall, how people are voting may become as hotly contested as who they are voting for.
For the first time this June, all 46 South Carolina counties used the same electronic voting machine — the iVotronic. A month after the state's primary, a study evaluating the security of the machines, produced and distributed by Election Systems & Software Inc. (ES&S), was released by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law's Task Force on Voting System Security. The study categorized over 120 security threats found in the three most commonly purchased electronic voting systems, with the ES&S iVotronic being a prime offender.
"We've learned a lot from our study," says Michael Waldman, Brennan Center's executive director. "The machines are vulnerable to attack. That's the bad news. The good news is that we know how to reduce the risks and the solutions are within reach."
This "good news" might sound even better if local election commission officials were even willing to consider there might be a problem.
When asked about the study, Gary Baum, director of public information and training for the South Carolina Election Commission, said he hadn't heard anything about it and characterized the new information as, "the same old song and dance."
"We have no concerns over security issues," was the similar response from Charleston Election Commission Director Marilyn Bowers. "A lot of these people do not understand the systems they are making these accusations about."
In this case, "these people" making the accusations are members of the Brennan Center's non-partisan panel drawn from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, leading research universities, and many of the nation's foremost security experts.
Their study concluded that if a person's goal is to change the outcome of a close statewide election, using software attack programs or other corrupt software on voting machines is the easiest way to accomplish it. The task force also found that voting machines with wireless components are significantly more vulnerable.
Luckily, the Charleston County iVotronics are not wireless, and Election Commission Director Bowers insists that the system is not hackable.
"The only problems we experienced (in the primary) were with the audio," says Bowers. "The public was very positive. They said the system was very easy to use, and I didn't hear anybody say that it was hard."
While finding the machines easy to navigate, a number of primary voters expressed security concerns about the new machines. The City Paper's own T. Ballard Lesemann, music editor and seasoned voter, expressed his trepidation about the new machines with polling place attendants after casting his primary ballot June 13. Fireworks ensued.
Lesemann voted at Moultrie Middle School in Mount Pleasant's Precinct 7. "The ladies at the polling station were very polite and helpful," he says. "We joked about the terrible weather. We discussed the procedure in the touch-screen booths. After I cast my votes, I asked if it was possible to get a paper receipt or a bill record showing that I voted at this precinct at this day and time, or even showing that I actually voted for the candidates I voted for. No one knew anything about offering paper receipts — they said it had never come up before. As we talked about it, a poll manager named Lou from down the hall walked over and interjected: 'What do you want a receipt for? This is America, not Iraq!' I tried to explain that I merely wanted a paper record of my electronic vote — and that this issue was something that came up after the controversy surrounding the 2000 national elections. He interrupted, was sarcastic and hostile (perhaps in an attempt to be funny), and went as far as to take my left index finger and draw a mark on the tip with a ball-point pen, adding, 'There, now you can show everyone you voted ... just like in Iraq. There's your receipt!'"
Lesemann was shaken up after the experience and immediately sent out e-mails to the state and county election commissions. He received an apology from the state commission, but no response from the county. In either case, he was given no answer to the original question he posed at the polling place. Is there a paper receipt? No. At least not for each individual voter.
The election commission prints a "vote summary" when the polls close. The summary indicates the date and time the machine was shut down, a public count, and a total vote count for each candidate. This count is then reconciled with the electronic record once it has been downloaded into the commissions computers.
This auditing process is very important for the security of the system. One of the Brennan Center study's co-authors, Lawrence Norden, indicates that there is not security value in the paper record if it is not reconciled with the electronic record. But according to Norden, very few election commissions do this process effectively enough to give voters the confidence that their votes were recorded correctly.
In Was the 2004 Election Stolen?, a book released this month, author Steve Freeman addresses this question and argues that Las Vegas slot machines are better monitored and regulated than America's voting machines. And whatever the process for vote recording — stone tablet, punch card CHAD ballots, electronic voting machines, or the internet — after the election debacles of 2000 and 2004, a voter would be naïve to have complete confidence in the system.