San Diego County is pushing ahead with plans to invest tens of millions of dollars in an electronic voting system despite dire warnings from experts that the technology may not be safe from ballot-rigging.
Critics say government agencies nationwide are ignoring the warnings, in part because of close relationships between elections officials and the handful of companies that manufacture voting equipment.
The nation has moved rapidly toward electronic voting since the 2000 presidential election controversy in Florida.
But activists and at least one member of Congress have called for more scrutiny of the technological shift in the way democracy is exercised.
The most public warning to date came from a Johns Hopkins University study issued last month that found major security lapses in a voting system marketed by Diebold, the company chosen to supply San Diego County's computerized balloting system.
The top elections official in the county said the report was badly flawed and that the machines she has recommended to the county Board of Supervisors will be tamper-proof.
"There's no reason to go with a different vendor," County Registrar of Voters Sally McPherson said. "The analysis was completed outside the total context of the election process. They looked at one piece of the software."
Diebold executives jetted to San Diego and other cities to smooth things over with McPherson and her national counterparts. They vehemently defended their so-called e-voting systems, saying the Johns Hopkins researchers used an old software code, failed to contact company programmers and had limited understanding about how elections are conducted.
"The report was taken way out of context," said Thomas Swidarski, president of Diebold Election Systems, the subsidiary that would provide 10,000 voting terminals to the county for about $31 million.
"When you talk to elections officials who understand the process, you get a very different take."
The Johns Hopkins report concluded that Diebold's software was vulnerable to hacking by anyone with the know-how and determination to change election results.
The researchers said hackers could forge the "smartcards" voters take into the polling booths, potentially allowing them to cast multiple ballots without being discovered.
Also, the telephones lines used to transmit data are vulnerable to hackers, the analysts said.
The machines could be rigged to end an election before polls close, the report found, and the personal identification numbers of election coordinators aren't protected from hackers.
"Our analysis shows that this voting system is far below even the most minimal security standards applicable in other contexts," the 24-page report concluded.
Aviel Rubin, the computer science professor who wrote the study with two graduate students and a Rice University colleague, said the technology to conduct a secure electronic election does not exist.
"People know that technology helps in many aspects of their lives, so why not voting?" Rubin said. "The answer is because the security issues are much more serious when it comes to voting."
In the wake of the disputed Florida election, when vote counters examined thousands of ballots and the term "hanging chad" burst into U.S. pop culture, politicians coast to coast pledged to upgrade voting systems.
In October, President Bush signed legislation to replace punch cards and butterfly ballots. A federal judge has ordered nine California counties — including San Diego — to eliminate their aging Votomatic systems by 2004.
McPherson cited that ruling as the primary reason for moving quickly on the Diebold contract.
"We've been decertified," she said. "We must have a new system by March 2004."
A key complaint against electronic systems is that a paper record isn't created after each vote is cast.
A panel convened by California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley to review touch-screen voting recommended last month against requiring a voter-verified paper record. Task force member Kim Alexander dissented, saying that without a hard copy, voters can never be certain their ballots were counted properly.
"Legitimate government in this country happens when people are able to exercise their right to vote with confidence," said Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit elections watchdog group based in Sacramento. "Consent of the governed cannot be won if elections are conducted in secret."
Before the Johns Hopkins report was published, most information about how computerized balloting works was limited to elections officials and the companies that make voting equipment.
This worries voter advocates, who say elections officials often end up working for the manufacturers after they leave public service.
Deborah Seiler, a former elections analyst and top assistant to then-Secretary of State March Fong Eu, is now a Diebold Elections System representative.
Lou Dedier, who helped certify California voting machines when he was the top deputy to former Secretary of State Bill Jones, quit in October to take an executive position with Election Systems & Software, an industry leader.
Weeks later, Jones called for an investigation into the job switch. But even Jones is not immune to the round-robin. He left office in January, and last month represented Sequoia Voting Systems at an industry conference in Maine.
"Generally, what's called the election community is made up of election officials and vendors, and the revolving door moves so fast it's dizzying," Alexander said.
Some lawmakers are calling for improved security for touch-screen voting.
Even before the Johns Hopkins study was released, Rep. Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey, introduced a bill to require elections officials to produce a paper record of every vote.
"We cannot afford nor can we permit another major assault on the integrity of the American electoral process," Holt said on his Web site. "Voting should not be an act of blind faith."
The legislation, a bill Holt called "The Voter Confidence and Accessibility Act of 2003," is pending in a House committee.
June Greenwald of the San Diego League of Women Voters said that even after a demonstration of how the machines work, she and others had questions about the systems that were not adequately answered.
"No one's going to know how to use it, at least the first time around," said Greenwald, who noted that the national League of Women Voters officially endorses computerized voting.
"It's going to be a tremendous job for the county, what with the recall and all. I don't know if they'll be able to get this together by this spring."
Later this month the San Diego County Board of Supervisors is expected to consider McPherson's recommendation to buy the Diebold equipment. Chairman Greg Cox said he was only partially familiar with the debate over electronic balloting and had read a news report of the Johns Hopkins review of Diebold software.
"Obviously it raised some issues," Cox said. "It's going to be up to Diebold to respond."www.signonsandiego.com/news/politics/20030804-9999_1m4diebold.htmlE-mail this article