Bay Area Programmers Develop Touchscreen Alternative

Tuesday March 30, 2004

As touchscreen voting machines continue to draw heat from critics pointing to allegations of security vulnerabilities, one group of computer science experts proposes to have the solution. 

The Open Voting Consortium (OVC), a nonprofit group with several Bay Area members, recently announced the development of touchscreen voting machine software that uses open source and creates a voter verified paper trail. Recently completed, the software is set to be publicly tested this Thursday, April 1, at the Santa Clara County government offices in San Jose. 

The group’s development comes at a particularly charged time for the touchscreen debate. Just last week, Alameda County Registrar of Voters Brad Clark filed an official complaint with Diebold, the manufacturer of the touchscreen voting machines used throughout the county. Clark was one of the first county registrars in the state to invest in the new technology, spending $12.7 million on the Diebold machines in May of 2002. But he made his formal complaint after several problems with the Diebold machines during last October’s gubernatorial recall, as well as the primary earlier this month, resulted in switched votes and major delays. 

Two state senators, including Oakland’s Don Perata, recently introduced legislation asking the state to decertify touchscreen machines. California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley has also issued two mandates asking for increased security updates on all touchscreen machines for upcoming elections. 

Taking all the complaints and security vulnerabilities into question, the Open Voting Consortium developed a simple approach; maintain the advantages of a touchscreen system but include the security features that alleviate the current security concerns.  

OVC’s system, currently in software form only, can be used on regular desktop PCs hooked up to a touchscreen monitor and a standard printer. Like the touchscreen machines now in use, the OVC unit records the vote electronically. But unlike Diebold’s machines, the OVC system also automatically produce a paper receipt, which is intended to be the official tally. To ensure accuracy, the paper count is then reconciled against the electronic one stored on the machines.  

“Our idea is that the machines should have [a tally] that people can inspect,” said Arthur Keller, a computer scientist who teaches part-time at UC Santa Cruz. “You trust the paper and can have much more faith in the process.”  

The group has written open source software that can be checked by anyone for malicious code that might tamper with votes. Like Linux software for PCs, OVC’s code isn’t proprietary. 

In contrast, the proprietary base software that runs the Diebold touchscreens machines in Alameda county was inspected by private companies before state certification, but is exempt from other check-ups. In the past, Diebold has been severely criticized for using un-certified software updates on their machines. 

No one associated with OVC thinks the new software or process will be the end-all of electronic voting problems but they say it’s a step in the right direction. 

“I think there has been a lack of critical analysis of claims made by voting companies, and now there is a healthier dose of criticism,” said David Dill, a computer science professor at Stanford and one of the leading experts on touchscreen voting vulnerabilities. Dill is not affiliated with OVC. Asked if OVC’s approach might be the solution, he said, “I don’t know, it’s still too early to say. He added, though, that, “I’m glad they’re doing it.” 

“I have hopes that they will come up with something,” said Judy Bertelsen, a member of Berkeley’s Wellstone Democratic Club who has been tracking the touchscreen debate. “What I’m concerned about is that if we do get some sort of paper trail that people will wander off and say everything is fine.” 

The touchscreen machines are just part of the problem, Bertelsen said. She is also concerned about the optical scan machines, another Diebold product. These devices were responsible for switching thousands of absentee ballot votes from Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante to Southern California Socialist John Burton during the Oct. 7 recall election. The Diebold machines used by the county to tally votes are an additional problem. 

Like Diebold’s machines, the Open Voting Consortium’s system would facilitate voting for people with certain disabilities. The group hopes their machines could also provide additional advantages for blind voters by producing paper receipts in Braille.  

The machines are still several steps away from making it onto the market. They need to be certified and also need the financial backing of a for-profit producer. One advantage over the Diebold machines, according to OVC members, is that the OVC software can be put on any standard PC. According to Keller, even an older and fairly slow PC can still run the program. Recycling old PCs could potentially cut down on cost, since old PCs can be bought for a fraction of the price of a Diebold machine. 

Alan Dechart, a former computer consultant for Sacramento County and founder of OVC, said the group has scheduled meetings with several secretaries of state around the country to discuss the new system. OVC also partnered with several universities on their project, including the University of California, and hopes to receive federal funding to move the project ahead. 

“It will catch on in certain areas,” Dechart said. “The people who have bought the voting machines will resist but they have to in order to cover their tracks so they don’t have to admit they made a stupid mistake.” 

The Open Voting Consortium’s software demonstration will take place this Thursday at 10 a.m. in room 157 at the Santa Clara County government office building located at 70 W. Hedding St. in San Jose. For more information please contact them at (916) 791-0456.