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Courtesy of the Cook County Clerk

A Cook County voter uses a Sequoia touch-screen machine.

Advocates worry electronic voting allows fraud

by Jeffery Barker
Jan 21, 2009

Can a memory stick keep track of votes as safely and accurately as a box of paper ballots?

That’s what a state representative is asking as he plans to introduce a bill that would require a larger automatic recount for each election.

Election watchdogs want to get rid of touch-screen voting, which they said is expensive and vulnerable to fraud, and go back to the paper ballot, which they said is faster and easier to use. Meanwhile, local election boards maintained that touch screen voting is reliable.

State Rep. Mike Boland (D-Moline) said he would like to see touch-screen machines limited to handicapped voters. He said machines in Illinois have a good paper trail that’s used to check digitally stored votes, but said he wants a stricter recount after seeing problems in Ohio and other states.

“People suspect the 2004 presidential election was stolen, whether or not that’s true,” said Boland.

State law requires an automatic recount of 5 percent of an election’s votes. Boland and the Illinois Ballot Integrity Project, an Evanston watchdog group, are working to raise the recount to 10 percent of the vote.

Courtney Greve, spokeswoman for the Cook County Clerk, said the current 5 percent system is “an excellent tool.”

“I don’t think it would be necessary to increase that percentage,” said Doreen Nelson, assistant executive director of the DuPage County Election Commission.

Illinois precincts offer voters two options when they get to the polls.

Touch-screen machines give voters a layout like an ATM screen. They press on-screen buttons to mark their choices, then receive a grocery style receipt, known as a Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail. Voters must either confirm the VVPAT or vote all over again.

Some voters have the option of filling out a traditional paper ballot to be read by an optical scanner. In DuPage, the majority of voters use optical scanning, said Nelson.

Touch screen-voting is most common in Cook County, according to Greve.

Robert Wilson, chairperson of the suburban Cook County chapter of the IBIP, is an election judge in Cook County. He said the organization opposes touch-screen voting because of cost, inaccuracy, and security concerns.

“They’re an expensive way to collect votes, if in fact that’s what they do,” said Wilson.

Wilson also said there’s no way for a voter to know that what’s printed on the receipt matches what’s stored in the computer. “We know it can write one result to internal memory and a different result to VVPAT.”

The 5 percent recount is an audit that checks if the two records match. Both Greve and Nelson said they have never had problems with touch-screen machines.

“I know they’re 100 percent accurate in terms of recording the results. With paper ballots, people can fill it out incorrectly,” said Greve.

The IBIP is concerned that there is no review of the software used in touch screen voting.

“There’s no accountability for the software that runs the machine,” said Melisa Urda of the DuPage chapter of IBIP.

But Denver-based Sequoia Voting Systems, the company that manufactured all the touch-screen machines in Cook County, said there is oversight.

The software code is not publicly available due to security concerns, said Michelle Shafer, vice president of communication and external affairs for Sequoia. The Election Assistance Commission, a federal testing authority, reviewed the code line-by-line.

Greve confirmed that the commission reviewed the software in Cook County machines.

IBIP said the current software is susceptible to election fraud. “The program is so porous that someone with a cell phone could hack into it,” said Urda.

In September, Andrew Appel, a Princeton computer scientist, published a study concluding that an old model of machine made by Sequoia was easy to hack into.

“There has never been a case of electronic voting machines being hacked into in a live election or attempted to be hacked into in the U.S.,” said Shafer. “The same can’t be said of paper ballots.”

Electronic machines became widespread following the Help America Vote Act of 2002, a federal law mandating the replacement of the punch-card system. The legislation came out of the hanging-chad controversy in Florida during the 2000 election.