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UCSB Put Finishing Touch on State’s Touch-Screen Voting Machine Ban

Due largely to the findings of UCSB computer scientists, Californians will vote the old-fashioned way Tuesday: by filling in paper-ballot bubbles.

Remember “hanging chads”?

Not long after the infamous 2000 presidential election debacle managed to turn that unfortunate combination of words into a household phrase, voters in California and across the nation began to notice the emergence of touch-screen voting machines at their local polling stations.

That’s because the widespread confusion and chaos surrounding the election of Texas Gov. George W. Bush over Vice President Al Gore set off a mad scramble among high-tech entrepreneurs to build a better voting mousetrap.

But due largely to the work of a team of UCSB computer scientists, the touch-screen craze in California was short-lived. On Election Day, the vast majority of California voters will perform their democratic duty the old-fashioned way: By filling in paper-ballot bubbles.

The UCSB team helped put the brakes on touch-screen voting last fall after demonstrating that the machines built by San Leandro-based Sequoia Voting Systems, one of California’s primary vendors of direct-recording electronic voting machines (also known as touch-screen machines), were easy to hack into, leaving them vulnerable to voter fraud.

Last month, team co-leader Giovanni Vigna conducted a seminar on campus, at which he detailed not only the findings of the team’s report but the ramifications.

“We taxpayers paid millions of dollars to buy Pintos,” he told the class in the Engineering Science Building. “They were sold to us as if they were Ferraris.”

About a year ago, as the UCSB team examined the Sequoia machines, other teams from the UC System looked into the three other major touch-screen voting vendors in the United States, and made similar findings. The experiment prompted a kind of statewide recall of the machines by Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who spearheaded the study as part of a campaign pledge to reform the election process. (Each polling station is allowed to keep one touch-screen machine on hand for the benefit of voters with disabilities.)

The UCSB team, led by professor Richard Kemmerer, UCSB’s Computer Science Leadership chairman, and Vigna, an associate professor, applauds Bowen’s move, but laments how, in the team’s opinion, much of the rest of the country continues to use machines that are defective.

There are signs that some of team’s fears may have played out.

In July, Vigna served as an expert witness in a court case involving a neck-and-neck sheriff’s race in Webb County, Texas. After the election, glitches in the flashcards for some touch-screen voting machines led to the disqualification of 29 ballots. Victory was awarded to one candidate, but a judge later handed it to the other, who, it was determined, won by a mere 42 votes.

Late last month in West Virginia, where poll voting has already begun, news reports say a handful of people have complained that their intended votes for Sen. Barack Obama on the touch-screen machines went to Sen. John McCain.

And in the battleground state of Ohio, the Secretary of State’s Web site was partially offline for a day after being hacked.

In Vigna’s opinion, filling in the bubble on paper is preferable to the touch-screen machines.

“It’s OK to vote on paper, and it’s OK to take a longer time to count the votes,” he said. “There is this mandate that you have to get the result the day after. Why? Let’s take a week and count stuff carefully.”

As part of its report, the UCSB team videotaped the process of hacking into a voting machine. The videos were posted on YouTube and, to date, have been viewed more than 67,000 times.

The team’s report — and corresponding video — shows that the touch-screen Sequoia machines can be corrupted by the introduction of a simple USB drive, also known as a thumb drive, a stick-of-gum-sized data storage device that can be plugged into a computer’s USB port.

In the video, the UCSB group shows itself swapping a thumb drive meant to prepare the touch-screen computers with another containing malicious code. The clip goes on to show a researcher touching the screen in favor of one candidate, but with the vote being cast for the other.

For its part, Sequoia sought to refute those findings after Bowen’s ruling.

“This was not a security-risk evaluation but an unrealistic worst-case scenario evaluation limited to malicious tests, studies and analysis performed in a laboratory environment by computer security experts with unfettered access to the machines and software over several weeks,” the company argued in a news release at the time.

“This is not a real-world scenario and does not reflect the diligence, hard work and dedication to the stewardship of our nation’s democracy that our customers — and all election officials — carry out every day in their very important jobs of conducting elections in California and throughout the United States.”

Although touch-screen computer voting systems were around before 2000, the industry was kicked into high gear by the failings of that election process, which saw the disqualification of nearly 2 million votes. In response, Congress passed the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which set aside $3.8 billion in funding for election reform. Much of that money was given to states for the purpose of replacing punch card and lever voting machines with modernized voting equipment, such as the Sequoia machines.

In fairness, Bowen’s office says it has tightened the rules for handling the votes counted by the touch-screen machines that are still in use for voters with disabilities. For instance, election officials must conduct a manual count of the voter-verified paper audit trails for each vote cast on those machines.

Bowen’s office also distanced itself from the video posted by UCSB researchers, saying in a statement that it never authorized the release.

“Because the release of the video was never authorized by the Secretary of State’s office, we asked the UCSB Computer Security Group to remove it from its site, which it did,” said Kate Folmar, a Bowen spokeswoman. “However, a third party posted the video on YouTube.”

At the seminar, a couple of the roughly 40 people in attendance expressed skepticism that machines are any more prone to fraud than paper ballots.

“In American political history, there has been a lot of clever political fraud baited in paper ballots,” one man pointed out.

Although Vigna conceded the point, he countered that the touch-screen machines are vulnerable to a greater scale of fraud.

With paper ballots, he said, “you have to be there physically. You have to break seals, open boxes. And you can do it at a certain scale. With electronic voting, scale is humongous. You can change statistically however you want in an untraceable way thousands and thousands and thousands of votes.”

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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