Government agencies have poured millions of dollars into what they describe as the future of democracy: computerized voting machines that would report election results faster and more accurately than ever before. But skeptics say the machines are far from reliable, and the companies that make them scarcely more so. The controversy heated up recently when California elections officials reported that the leading voting machine maker ran uncertified software in the state's last two elections.
California has invested more than $45 million in e-voting, and election officials have presented many of these systems as models other states could adopt. Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, says that wouldn't be a good idea.
"The security and oversight system is a house of cards and it's right now tumbling and being shown to be not the robust oversight system that we'd hoped for, and our local elections officials are for the most part in over their heads when it comes to deploying new technology," she said.
The flap over whether voting machine maker Diebold Election Systems properly certified its equipment is only the latest in a series of controversies.
Critics say the touch-screen voting machines are very vulnerable to hackers. One computer science study claims the software used to encode computerized ballots - plastic cards resembling the room keys used by many hotels - is easy to crack, so easy that a high school student could churn out dummy cards using off-the-shelf equipment. California's secretary of state has said he may bar Diebold machines from the March 2 presidential primary unless they're properly certified.
But Mark Radke, Diebold's marketing director, characterizes the certification discrepancies as very minor. "There was what we see as a miscommunication between the jurisdictions, the secretary of state's office and Diebold concerning what version of software was actually being used on the system for particular elections," he said.
Most computer companies continue to tinker with their software as long as it remains on the market. In the early stages of development, they might release new versions every few weeks. Mr. Radke says that's the kind of discrepancy at issue here, and claims it wouldn't jeopardize the integrity of election results. He says the company's machines do meet Federal Elections Commission checks and have passed tests by two independent research groups - and further, that they're safe from tampering.
"If there was any hidden code that was placed on the system, it would have been detected by these organizations, because they went through every piece of our system with a fine-tooth comb," he said.
In Los Angeles County, Registrar-Recorder Connie McCormack is preparing to use the machines this spring. She says fears that they are unreliable are consistent with past controversies over technological change.
"In 1969, the LA Times had a big story entitled How Computers can Rig Elections, [because] all the sudden, all these punch card devices were out there," she said. "People didn't know whether or not we were counting it accurately and how do we know those logic tests that they do and those accuracy tests are there. You can go back through the history of voting. When there's a major change in how the ballot is cast, there's been suspicion as to whether or not it can be manipulated."
Still, given the razor-thin margin in the last presidential election and the big investment government is making in electronic voting, high-tech watchdog groups say it's only reasonable to require safeguards. Before the computerized machines go into widespread use, they want a system that lets voters confirm their choices on paper, and one official can check by hand in case of contested elections.