California orders voting machines to have tighter security
August 4, 2007
SACRAMENTO (AP) California’s secretary of state on Friday placed rigorous security conditions on voting equipment used in dozens of counties and limited the use of two of the most widely used machines.The most affected counties will have to scramble to find alternate equipment just six months before California holds its presidential primary.Secretary of State Debra Bowen had set Friday as the deadline to tell counties whether their voting equipment would be decertified because of California’s accelerated election schedule next year. She had to alert them six months before the Feb. 5 presidential primary and made her announcement just minutes before midnight.Her decision followed the results of an eight-week security review of the voting systems used in all but a handful of California’s 58 counties.University of California computer experts found that voting machines sold by three companies Diebold Election Systems, Hart InterCivic and Sequoia Voting Systems were vulnerable to hackers and that voting results could be altered.Bowen said it revealed some vulnerabilities that would allow hackers to manipulate the systems “with little chance of detection and with dire consequences.”Her review also found that the machines posed problems for disabled voters.Specifically, Bowen said she had decertified the machines for use and then recertified them on the condition they meet her new security standards. When asked what would happen if the companies failed to do so, Bowen responded, “I think they will.”In a move with potentially wide-ranging consequences, Bowen also limited the Diebold and Sequoia machines to one per polling place. She said that would help voters with disabilities cast their ballots while significantly reducing the threat of vote manipulation.But the limited use of those machines will force some counties to find replacement equipment on a tight schedule.Bowen ordered the review, which was released last week, to ensure that California would not face the same doubts about the accuracy of its voting systems that hit Florida after the 2000 election and Ohio in 2004. She held a public hearing on the reports Monday.The secretary of state’s office took on an eerie feel Friday night, with Bowen huddling with her aides behind closed doors in the hours before her cusp-of-midnight news conference.An announcement coming so late on the day Bowen had set as the deadline concerned local elections officials.Steve Weir, president of the state association of registrars, said the actual deadline to notify counties under state election law is Sunday.That means Bowen could have scheduled her announcement for Monday and still met the six-month timeframe, giving her more time to review the reports and decide on a course of action, he said.”This thing has been rushed at every stage, and the amount of time the public has had to review and comment is unconscionable,” Weir said before Bowen made her announcement. “This is way too important to be doing that.”The full scope of Bowen’s decision was not immediately clear late Friday. Weir said 42 counties use electronic voting machines for disabled voters, while 22 use them as their primary method at polling places.He expressed concern about Bowen’s order limiting the use of some Diebold and Sequoia voting systems, the most widely used in California.Bowen suggested that counties could replace the Diebold and Sequoia equipment with electronic scanners that use paper ballots _ the kind used to read absentee ballots.Weir, however, was concerned that there may be too few vendors to produce the scanning machines or paper ballots needed to fill the gaps left by Bowen’s order.”We’re talking about tens of millions of additional ballots for three elections next year. You do not just go to Kinkos,” he said.He also warned that the companies would have to get federal approval if Bowen’s conditions for recertification require any more than minimal changes to a machine’s software and hardware. That process could take up to eight months well past California’s presidential primary.Bowen was undeterred by the challenges and the criticism she has faced from local election officials. She compared her mission to ensure the integrity of voting machines to the federal government issuing a recall when it determines a consumer product is unsafe.The same standards should be applied to voting systems, she said, to “make sure they are secure, accurate and reliable.”The additional security requirements she imposed included banning all modum or wireless connections to the machines to prevent them from being linked to an outside computer or the Internet. Each machine that must be recertified also has a lengthy list of additional conditions it must meet, many of them highly technical.She also required a full manual count of all votes cast on Diebold or Sequoia machines to ensure accuracy.Company officials have downplayed the results of Bowen’s review, saying they reflected unrealistic, worst-case scenarios that would be counteracted by security measures taken by the companies and local election officials.The companies also complained that the examiners had access to computer coding, manuals and other information that is not available to the public.Officials with Sequoia said they were disappointed with Bowen’s withdrawal of the company’s certification but said they would make any necessary improvements to their equipment, which they defended as accurate and secure.”Electronic voting systems have never been successfully tampered with in an actual election,” the company said in a statement. “That same statement cannot be made about lever machines and paper-based voting systems throughout our nation’s history.”In a statement, Hart InterCivic also defended its equipment, and said the company would work to comply with Bowen’s requirements.Messages left with Diebold early Saturday were not immediately returned.Machines made by a fourth company, Election Systems & Software, were not included in the review because it was late providing information the secretary of state’s office needed, said Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for Bowen.The secretary of state launched a separate review of that company’s Inkavote Plus system, which is used only in Los Angeles County. On Friday, Bowen said she had decertified that equipment but would review and reconsider it.A message left for a company spokesman early Saturday morning was not immediately returned.Bowen’s office also is reviewing an application by Election Systems & Software for certification of a new version of its Automark voting system, which is used in 10 counties.A third aspect of the secretary of state’s study examined the complicated computer codes that control how electronic voting systems operate. Besides Los Angeles County, San Francisco and Contra Costa counties were not included in the review.Last November’s general election ran relatively smoothly in most counties, except for the occasional technical glitch. The three companies whose machines were reviewed by the secretary of state each experienced minor problems, ranging from machines that would not accept voters’ ballot cards to printers that did not turn out paper records of ballots.Since 2004, California has required that all voting machines produce a paper trail that allows elections officials to see ballot results.