Black Box Voting Blues
Electronic ballot technology makes things easy. But some computer-security experts warn of the possibility of stolen elections
By Steven Levy

Nov. 3 issue - After the traumas of butterfly ballots and hanging chad, election officials are embracing a brave new ballot: sleek, touch-screen terminals known as direct recording electronic voting systems (). States are starting to replace their Rube Goldbergesque technology with digital devices like the Diebold Accu-Vote voting terminal. Georgia uses Diebolds exclusively, and other states have spent millions on such machines, funded in part by the 2002 federal Help America Vote Act. Many more terminals are on the way.

Unfortunately, the machines have “a fatal disadvantage,” says Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey, who’s sponsoring legislation on the issue. “They’re unverifiable. When a voter votes, he or she has no way of knowing whether the vote is recorded.” After you punch the buttons to choose your candidates, you may get a final screen that reflects your choices—but there’s no way to tell that those choices are the ones that ultimately get reported in the final tally. You simply have to trust that the software inside the machine is doing its job.

It gets scarier. The best minds in the computer-security world contend that the voting terminals can’t be trusted. Listen, for example, to Avi Rubin, a computer-security expert and professor at Johns Hopkins University who was slipped a copy of Diebold’s source code earlier this year. After he and his students examined it, he concluded that the protections against fraud and tampering were strictly amateur hour. “Anyone in my basic security classes would have done better,” he says. The cryptography was weak and poorly implemented, and the smart-card system that supposedly increased security actually created new vulnerabilities. Rubin’s paper concluded that the Diebold system was “far below even the most minimal security standards.” Naturally, Diebold disagrees with Rubin. “We’re very confident of accuracy and security in our system,” says director of Diebold Election Systems Mark Radke.

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Also, note that it says Georgia uses Diebolds exclusively. Interestingly, in 2002, after installing the Diebolds, Georgia elected a Republican governor for the first time in about a hundred years -- After the pre-election day polls showed him trailing badly.