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Is electronic voting risky?

U. professors fear machines may be flawed

Published: Monday, Sept. 27 2004 12:00 a.m. MDT

The average voter may not be overly concerned with electronic voting machines, but a group of computer scientists is raising awareness of security dangers, possible ballot tampering and computer error.
John Carter, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Utah, believes that all of the possible failures of electronic voting machines need to be considered. He urges county clerks and state elections officials to exercise extreme caution when deciding which machines will replace the current punch-card ballots.
"We do not want to replace our system that may be flawed with another system that could be massively flawed," Carter said. "It would only take a small computer bug to cause widespread havoc."
Currently, members of the state's Voting Equipment Selection Committee are considering two bids for new electronic voting machines. Neither of the systems would give voters a printed receipt of their ballot, which Carter said was needed to ensure that all votes would be counted, even in the case of computer error.
"The paperless systems are not secure, and they don't assure voters that their vote was counted," he said. "Most important, there is no way to conduct a manual recount."
The news conference was called by Utah Count Votes, a group urging the state to move cautiously in its selection of new voting machines, which are required to be in use throughout the country by the 2006 general election. The group sent a letter this week to the state elections officials, signed by 15 university professors, that explained their concerns and outlined why recent studies suggesting general public support for the electronic machines were not interpreted correctly.
Jay Lepreau, a research professor of computer science at the U., said the biggest problem with electronic voting machines that do not have paper ballots is that voters may not trust them. If voters lose trust, they may not cast their vote.
"Voters need to have the guarantee that their vote will count," he said. "Otherwise, they will not turn out . . . providing a paper ballot is the only way to guarantee that 100 percent."
The news conference was held in response to recent national surveys from the legal Web site FindLaw and a separate one by U. assistant political science professor Thad Hall, which found that almost a third of Americans have not formed an opinion about the potential of fraud or error with electronic voting machines. Utah Count Votes was concerned that the surveys demonstrated that Americans need more education about the potential flaws of systems, not that they showed — as they feared summaries of the surveys suggested — Americans supported using the machines. They were also concerned that the results did not reflect the opinions of computer professionals, high majorities of whom have doubted that electronic systems could be guaranteed as secure in other surveys.


E-mail: jloftin@desnews.com

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