February 24, 2008

Maybe Voters Should Stand-up to be Counted

The ability to participate in electing government leadership is perhaps an Americans single most precious privilege which has distinguished us from other nations around the world. At election time we are reminded frequently how every single vote counts and can make a difference, which of course is true. However this week the saga of the troubled electronic voting machines continues to make the news and perhaps voters should speak-up and request paper and pencils be provided instead for the next go round.

NJ Attorney General Anne Milgram said that NJ will miss another deadline to retrofit the Sequoia Voting machines with paper printers, intended to allow voters to see a paper record of their ballot selections. It seems that testing of the machines with the new apparatus has been delayed, once again and it will not be possible to have the equipment voter ready for the June 3rd primary.

Meanwhile back at the Union County Ranch, in a Star Ledger article on 2/20/08, Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi tells of the difficulty she had in verifying returns in the recent presidential primary, it seems that the numbers on some of the Sequoias just didn’t jibe. Rajoppi learned that similar problems existed in Bergen, Gloucester, Middlesex and Ocean Counties.

Further it has also been reported that Mercer County Executive Brian M. Hughes, in a letter to the state attorney general voiced his concerns regarding discrepancies as well when problems with the numbers cropped up in 30 of the county’s 600 Sequoia Voting Systems machines. Sequoia called the discrepancy “an anomaly” and they suspect a corrupted computer chip to be the culprit. However, when it comes to voting there is not any room for anomalies or corrupted computer chips or excuses for any kind of malfunction.

Quite frankly Sequoia’s attitude seemed rather cavalier which come to think of it doesn’t appear to be anything new. In 2006 a company representative referred to machine problems in CA, WA, FL and NM as “minor glitches” and “extremely minor if they exist at all” this according to an article in the Rocky Mountain News regarding the Denver City Council purchasing Sequoias and the quandary that Essex County, NJ faced regarding their order for the same electronic voting machines. . http://www.votetrustusa.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1326&Itemid=51

Voter’s rights activists here in New Jersey appeared before a Mercer County assignment judge in Feb. of ’07 in an attempt to have all 10,000 of New Jersey’s electronic voting machines withheld from use. The Judge told state officials to start making backup plans to replace Sequoia electronic voting machines used by 18 of 21 counties if they cannot be equipped with paper printers by the start of 2008, which would have been in time for the recent presidential primary.

The lawyer for the group, Penny M. Venetis cited the research work of Princeton University computer science professor, Andrew W. Appel, who had purchased 5 electronic voting machines off the internet for a total of $82. Mr. Appel is an expert in computer security and said that a more secure voting system would have a separate paper ballot that could be verified by voters. One of Mr. Appel’s students was able to open up a machine in about seven seconds with a screwdriver and after having studied the software Appel said that someone with a bachelor’s degree in computer science could subvert it in about 10 minutes. Click here to read Appel’s article, “How I bought used voting machines on the Internet” in its entirety http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~appel/avc/

Dr. Rebecca Mercuri, president of Notable Software Inc, is a recognized expert in computer security, especially in electronic voting, says that the machines are not flawless. She says that the electronic voting machines cannot be audited even with paper printouts. "I can teach my first-year students how to show one thing on the screen, print something else on the paper tape, and record something different on the computer disk," Mercuri said. One than has to wonder if pursuing this avenue is really worth the effort.

We hear that at the latest meeting of the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders Joanne Rajoppi was praised by some to almost heroic status for being able to notice the discrepancy, but hey, she was doing the job that she is paid handsomely to do and was elected to do. The residents of Union County count on her to keep the county’s records and keep them accurately which admittedly she does. Sequoia insists that their machines problems have no bearing on the vote tallies for each candidate, but it seems that from her reaction to the incidents Rajoppi finds little comfort in their assurances.

Call in the Experts -
Because this is a state wide problem the attorney general is dealing with Sequoia but perhaps the Freeholder Board along with administrations of the other counties need to exert some public pressure on the situation. To be realistic, how can Sequoia retrofit these voting machines with printers to produce a paper trail when they are not able to produce the technology to build a machine which engenders trust from the voters when they are casting their ballots? Sequoia, to be sure, will never willingly throw up their hands and cry uncle as there are really big bucks on the line. But, since voting machines are a far cry from ATM machines might I suggest that they, Sequoia, consult with the good folks at Nintendo who have successfully mastered the world of interactive technology.