Federal grant aims at e-voting system reforms

Efforts to reform the American election system continue. In August, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced it was awarding a grant of $7.5 million to a team from Rice University and five other prestigious research institutions to evaluate flaws in the current electronic voting systems.

Dan Wallach, an e-voting expert, was quoted in an NSF press release as saying: “It’s no exaggeration to say that voting systems are one of the pillars of democracy. The basic question is: ‘How can we employ computer systems as trustworthy election systems when we know computers are not totally reliable, totally secure or bug-free?”

In voting,” said Wallach, who is an associate professor of computer science at Rice, “this is complicated by the fact that potential adversaries include everyone from the voting system designers, election officials and voters, to political operatives, hackers and foreign agents.”

The research group is called “ACCURATE,” which stands for A Center for Correct, Usable, Reliable, Auditable and Transparent Elections. It includes the NSF-funded e-voting research center at Johns Hopkins University, plus researchers from the University of California, Berkeley; Stanford University; the University of Iowa and SRI International.

The largest conversion of U.S. voting technology in a century is progressing. In 2004, it permitted about 29 percent of U.S. voters to cast their ballots on electronic voting machines. Despite numerous questions about the security and integrity of these systems, many more counties plan to have them in place for voter use in the 2008 balloting.

The intent of this latest grant appears to be to boost security of the systems and maximize public confidence and trust in electronic voting machines. But all may not be what it seems.

Bev Harris, of BlackBoxVoting.org, notes the project will examine technology, public policy issues and election booth behavior in order to develop new voting technologies.

Harris commented on her Web site: “The thing about an NSF grant is this: You can’t wear certain kinds of hats concurrently while taking NSF money. Therefore, plan to see the deck chairs being rearranged a bit in the election reform movement. Running an organization that raises funds and/or does lobbying, and working for an NSF grant on a related issue at the same time would be likely to raise eyebrows with funders.”

Harris thinks there may be some conflicts among the members of this project because of their other activities. Some relationships, she said, will have to be ended to comply with the rules of the grant. She points particularly at the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA). In August 2003, she said, this group established a lobbying arm for voting machine vendors like Diebold, ES&S and Hart Intercivic.

At the same time, Harris said, ITAA tried to create a new standard by putting well-placed academics together with government agencies to restore public confidence in e-voting systems. The ITAA planned to allow vendors to exert a quiet, low-key influence on research, certification and media information while acting behind the scenes.

Harris also faults the scientists chosen for this project for not telling what they knew about remote access vulnerability of these systems nor disclosing that the Diebold machines had a glaring flaw in a memory card that allowed simple hacking to steal an election. They permitted the 2004 election to proceed despite knowledge of these problems.

In her Web site commentary, Harris concluded: “The new NSF-funded group offers a real shot in the arm for the election reform movement by offering U.S. scientists a way to expose what they know in a less fettered way. At the same time, the group should be observed to catch any actions too friendly to vendors, and certain ties among the NSF participants with their current activities will need to be cut.”

More than ample evidence exists on the pressing need for voting reform. According to an article by Peter Phillips on commondreams.org, strong statistical evidence exists of widespread manipulation of electronic voting machines in U.S. elections since 2000. While this has been reported by the alternative media and many bloggers, the national press has largely ignored the issue. The fact that there is almost nobody in Congress talking about this problem is a principal example of how willing our lawmakers are to accept an election system based on money.

A small example of how corrupted the process has become occurred near the end of last July in San Diego, Calif. There, Jim March, a member of the board of directors of BlackBoxVoting.org, tried to gain access to the Diebold central tabulator [vote counting machine] and was arrested as the votes in the San Diego mayoral race were being tabulated.

Charges against March were later dropped as a protest action by his supporters began to build. Prosecutors, however, retained the right to reinstate charges at a later time.

March, on his Web site, said he is considering a lawsuit for civil rights violations. He argues that citizens have a constitutional right to observe elections and the tallying of voting results. March said he may file charges of violating the Freedom of Information Act and some additional civil rights charges.

If you happen to doubt that any improprieties existed in the 2000 and 2004 elections, think about these: in 47 of 67 Florida counties in the 2004 election, Bush got more than 100 percent of the registered Republican vote; in 15 counties he got 200 percent and in four counties he drew 300 percent of the registered Republican voters. This in spite of the fact that Democratic crossover votes in Florida did not increase from 2000. In Ohio, the irregularities were very glaring. Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, reported 93,000 more votes than registered voters.

From the Oct. 12-18, 2005, issue

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