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Foreign Ownership of Machines Latest E-Voting Fear Factor

Foreign Ownership of Machines Latest E-Voting Fear Factor

The issue of voting machine security has polarized both the electorate and Congress. To be sure, there are well documented reasons to be concerned about the integrity of the voting process next week -- one has only to look at the numerous glitches that plagued Maryland's primary elections to understand the dangers.

By Erika Morphy
10/30/06 3:55 PM PT

Concerns have been growing that voting machine mishaps might undermine the results of the upcoming Congressional elections -- among the most bitterly fought in recent memory -- either through glitches in the new technology or through outright fraud.

The latest worry? The ownership of Boca Raton, Fla.-based Smartmatic, which last year acquired Sequoia Voting Systems -- a provider of electronic voting machines that will be used in more than 30 states next month. The owners of Smartmatic are three Venezuelan nationals who have done work for the Venezuelan government, which lately has been at odds -- to put it mildly -- with the Bush Administration.

CFIUS Bound

The company has told reporters it has voluntarily agreed to have the acquisition reviewed by the Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS), a U.S. government agency that made headlines earlier this year when it approved the Dubai Port World's acquisition of six U.S. port terminals. Eventually, after much public outcry, the company agreed to back out of the deal.

Then, as in the Smartmatic case now, the issue of security polarized both the electorate and Congress. To be sure, there are well documented reasons to be concerned about the integrity of the voting process next week -- one has only to look at the numerous glitches that plagued Maryland's primary elections to understand the dangers.

However, opinions are divided as to whether Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez -- who referred to President Bush as a "devil" in a recent UN conference -- is indeed poised to manipulate the election, or if security concerns have been misplaced.

"I don't think it is a concern," Paul S. Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland in College Park told the E-Commerce Times. "I recently flew from Canada and the people in charge of security -- the people who checked my passport, who checked the no fly lists, etcetera, were not U.S. citizens. But the process was still very secure."

Avi Rubin, author of Brave New Ballot and a professor of Computer Science at John Hopkins University, by contrast does have concerns about the issue -- but they are based on larger fears that e-voting is not particularly secure in the first place.

"We are using machines that are easily rigged," he told the E-Commerce Times. "If we were using voting machines that did not require trusting the manufacturer, such as paper ballots with precinct count optical scans, then it wouldn't matter if they were made in Iran."

Indeed, the view most people are likely to form about Smartmatic -- which it must be said has vigorously denied any links to Chavez -- will be based on how secure in general they feel e-voting is and whether the concerns about hacking and glitches are valid.

Valid Issues

Rubin, for instance, said such concerns are, unfortunately, valid.

"The real problem is that there is no way to audit these machines, so we will not know if the result is correct," he claimed. "The wrong result might be obtained through a software bug, through tampering, or because the machines were rigged to begin with. The only certainty is that we will have reason to doubt the results because we will not know if any of these things occurred."

Herrnson, for his part, is more sanguine about the technology. In fact, it is the mistakes that could just as easily happen in paper-based systems that worry him most. For instance, one survey of poll workers recently indicated that the ballots that required voters to write-in a candidate caused the most difficulty -- primarily because the voters had difficulty remembering the candidate's name. Hacking election results is not inconceivable, Herrnson said -- but neither is the prospect of crooked poll workers who stuff ballot boxes. "There have been accusations of election fraud throughout the history of the United States."


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