E-voting issues stir in advance of November elections

With US elections four weeks away, visions of glitches past and present are dancing in the heads of tech observers bracing for November 4. It may not help that one judge is suppressing the results of an e-voting machines test.

A New Jersey judge has ruled that testing results from Sequoia e-voting machines used in that state are not to be released until further notice.

The report, based on testing done over the summer by Princeton professor Andrew Appel and a team of computer scientists, was presented to Judge Linda Feinberg on September 2; according to the agreement the state reached with those scientists, they were free to publish their findings 30 days later. But on September 24, Judge Feinberg withdrew that permission -- leaving even New Jersey's own legislature wondering what's in there.

The machines in question are Sequoia AVC Advantage touch-screen (DRE) units. The company was the first to make efforts toward providing voter-verifiable paper audit trails -- printed receipt-type tapes that allegedly show that any given voter's ballot was recorded by the computer as the voter wished it to be.

The lawsuit (Gusciora v. McGreevey) began four years ago this month, with plaintiffs from the Rutgers Constitutional Litigation Clinic claiming that the use of DRE machines lacking a verifiable paper trail is unconstitutional. The case was dismissed by a trial court, bumped up to Appeals, sent back down to the lower court, and ended up spending several years with Judge Feinberg monitoring state compliance with new legislation requiring paper trails.

When the state wasn't able to implement appropriate machines by early 2008, it appeared that no e-voting tech inspections would be done at all, but after an outcry (and, allegedly, threats from the manufacturer) the court ordered that the plaintiffs -- though not famed e-voting researcher Ed Felten -- be given voting machines and source code for intensive study.

Sequoia grumbled about product licensing, but they complied. The report went to the court in September -- and there, according to Dr. Appel's blog, it waits.

Meanwhile, some Sequoia machines are reported to be behaving oddly in Florida's Palm Beach County, where two of the 400-C optical-scanner counting machines used by officials there re-counted a number of previously rejected paper ballots from a recent judicial race and "un-rejected" them. Further tests are not expected, since the machines must be made ready for November 4, a process that willl include changing the software.

A video produced by researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara purports to show "how voting machines can be compromised and modified by a virus that steals votes from unsuspecting users."

YouTube continues to play an unusual role in the ongoing e-voting controversy. Security researchers at UCSB have posted multiple videos showing how to hack Sequoia's Edge-model machines, and Princeton computer scientists (though none of the team currently involved in the Sequoia testing) famously posted footage of their successful Diebold AccuVote-TS hack in 2006.

On the lighter side, Jason Osgood, Washington State's Democratic candidate for Secretary of State, has made e-voting an important part of his platform, and has posted two campaign ads (#1 viewable here, and #2 viewable here from YouTube) in the style of the "I'm a Mac/I'm a PC" ads. True to form for the region, the unsympathetic e-voting machine is portrayed as a sleazy California type -- one that can't handle humidity.

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