Open source could fix e-voting flaws, California secretary of state says

Proprietary software hides flaws from public, Bowen says


California Secretary of State Debra Bowen said open source software can help fix some of the flaws in controversial electronic voting systems.

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen argued Thursday that open source software can help fix some of the flaws in electronic voting systems, which have proliferated throughout the country since the 2000 election yet been criticized as unreliable.

Software that designs ballots and operates electronic voting machines would benefit from more scrutiny, Bowen indicated during a panel discussion on e-voting at EmTech, the Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT. As secretary of state, she is able to examine the code of proprietary software under nondisclosure agreements, but privileged information about voting-software flaws is not easily accessed by the general public or many county workers given the job of purchasing voting machines, she said.

"I have a separate set of documents that only I can see, that tell me what some of the flaws are related to proprietary software," Bowen said, arguing it would be better to disclose all the details of the software through an open source model.

Voting machines are purchased by individual counties, rather than the state, and in many cases the people purchasing these machines don't have any good way to verify their reliability, Bowen said.

"We're basically asking a county IT professional, who may or may not have any experience in crypto-security, to purchase a system," Bowen said. "The software is proprietary. In most cases, the person who does the purchase has no legal right to review the software, even if they knew what they were reviewing."

Open source software could help design more effective ballots, Bowen said. Ballots vary widely by city and neighborhood because there are many local elected boards. One of the early problems California had with touch-screen voting is that voters were sometimes presented with the wrong ballot, she said.

Bowen, a former lawyer, state legislator, and Los Angeles County poll worker, was elected California Secretary of State in November 2006; she then commissioned an independent review of the state's voting technology and another review of its election-auditing standards.

California's reviews determined there are security flaws in every voting system, whether it be a touch-screen voting machine or a system that scans paper ballots marked by hand, Bowen said.

Anyone with a screwdriver would have been able to access the inner workings of certain machines, Bowen said, and others were vulnerable to computer hackers who potentially could change the results of elections. A separate analysis in 2006 by Princeton University looked at the Diebold AccuVote-TS voting machine and found it was vulnerable to extremely serious attacks, including the installation of malicious code through a removable memory card.

Bowen said she wants to move away from direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, which typically require voters to cast votes using buttons or touch screens, because they lack a means to independently verify results. Instead, she favors using optical scanning machines with paper ballots, allowing hand counts if necessary.

More than 20 California counties scrapped their electronic voting machines because of concerns about computer viruses and other security problems, a National Public Radio report noted in February.

The EmTech panel focused on electronic voting machines, but Bowen said her biggest concern about the upcoming presidential election is the purging of voter registration lists. Some states require exact name matches between voter registrations and ID cards. This can lead to problems for people with unusual last names, Asians, Latin Americans, people whose names include apostrophes, recently married women who have changed their last names, or a person named Jonathan who writes "Jon" on one form and "Jonathan" on another. California struggled with this issue in 2006, she said.

"We have the potential to see many voters who are registered be disenfranchised because computers aren't very good at knowing Jon and Jonathan are the same person," Bowen said.

In response to the disputed 2000 presidential election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002, authorizing $3 billion to help states replace old punch-card and lever voting machines.

Numerous states ended up buying paperless voting machines that later were scrapped. A New York state election official recently boasted that New York is "the first state to actually get it right" -- because it never bothered to spend most of its Help America Vote money.

Joining Bowen on the EmTech panel were an MIT professor and two advocates, who didn't seem impressed by the government's attempt to improve elections. Doug Chapin, director of, said Congress addresses election issues sporadically and only in response to specific crises.

"It's said in Washington that the two things Congress does better than anyone else is nothing and overreact," Chapin said.

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