From time to time, we like to look into the ongoing saga of electronic voting machines in the United States. When last we checked, our Senior Associate Editor Steven Cherry was telling us, in this space, that in the November 2006 national elections a hotly contested Senate race in Virginia would not be subject to a ballot recount mainly because there was "nothing to recount". Likewise, Senior Editor Tekla S. Perry confided in a report on her frustrating effort to even cast her vote in California on Election Day. So today, we couldn't resist passing along this link to a blog in the Contra Costa Times by Ian Hoffman called "E-voting Demise Could Be Near."

One of the outcomes of last November's results was the election of a new Secretary of State in California. Debra Bowen ran on a platform that included a plank promising reform of the state's voting systems (Cherry, in fact wrote about her in last October's article "The Next Voting Debacle?"). According to Hoffmann, she's now ready to act on that promise. He informs us that Bowen has proposed the toughest standards for e-voting machines in the nation, regulations that could even spell the demise of the controversial digital boxes. Bowen wants California to create so-called red teams of software experts to pore through the code of manufacturers such as Diebold Election Systems, looking for flaws or irregularities before the machines can be certified.

As usual, this has touched off another tempest in the tumultuous climate of technology in American politics. California's own local election officials have responded to their Secretary of State that there simply isn't enough time to prepare machines for such an inspection. You see, the Golden State recently revised its party primary balloting from June to February for next year's races, meaning all the software auditing and, if needed, resulting upgrades would have to be completed over the next 10 months.

Steve Weir, the president of the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials (and chief elections officer in Contra Costa County) told Hoffmann: "When they moved that election up 119 days, I think the door closed on any significant changes to election systems for the presidential cycle in 2008."

E-voting reformers such as Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in the field of voting technology, was overwhelmingly supportive of the proposal. "Debra Bowen is holding up voting machines to the standards they deserve," he told the Contra Costa reporter. "I don't know of any other state in the country that requires red team testing of voting machines, and I've long maintained that this is the only reasonable way to test security."

Adding to the confusion, California passed a law three years ago mandating that all e-voting machines incorporate a paper-based record of individual ballots so that persons with visual impairments can have their votes confirmed by audio interpretation. Yet the state's election officials have not gotten around to enforcing even that provision, which does not augur well for Bowen's new testing proposal.

For now, Hoffmann informs us, the machine's manufacturers are standing on the sidelines, waiting to see how all the ruckus plays out.

So the saga will continue well into the next election cycle. And we'll be writing about it time and time again. Stay tuned for our next installment. This is one mess that somehow refuses to be cleaned up.


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