Nation's voting equipment could get sharper federal scrutiny next year

Monday, November 6th 2006, 8:14 pm
By: News On 6

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) After a series of voting problems in primaries around the country, the federal agency charged with overseeing elections is poised to approve new security measures to make voting equipment safer and more reliable.

But reforms proposed by the Election Assistance Commission are unlikely to take effect until long after Tuesday's election.

The reforms, which would go into effect in January, are meant to give the agency much more power than it has currently to regulate elections and develop standards for voting software and hardware.

``For most of our existence we were a kingdom with no subjects,'' said Brian Hancock, the commission's director of testing and certification. ``As of January, that will change a little bit.''

Voter rights advocates say the potential changes could strengthen the American electoral process, a patchwork of voting methods and inconsistent rules without meaningful federal oversight that has spawned numerous glitch-filled elections.

``We're now at the beginning of the field where the United States can be at the lead in developing tools for democracy,'' said Dr. Ted Selker, associate professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-director of the Voting Project, run by MIT and the California Institute of Technology.

Meanwhile, Congress is reviewing separate reforms to sharpen scrutiny of voting equipment companies after the March 2005 sale of Oakland,California based Sequoia Voting Systems Inc., one of the largest U.S. voting equipment companies, to Florida based Smartmatic Inc.

Smartmatic operates voting machines throughout Venezuela, and CEO Antonio Mugica has said the Venezuelan government has no stake in the company. But Smartmatic's ties to Venezuela, a nation whose president, Hugo Chavez, recently called President Bush ``the devil,'' has raised eyebrows.

Voter watchdogs, for their part, are particularly concerned about electronic voting, which some scientists say is vulnerable to malfunctions and even hackers.

The Election Assistance Commission is scheduled to vote December 7th whether to approve changes that would allow it to forbid voting equipment manufacturers from selling hardware and software that is proved or suspected to fail. It would be the first time the federal government had the power to punish companies that sold bad equipment.

The commission would also have the authority to spot-test questionable equipment anywhere in the country and could require companies to store voting software in ``escrow,'' where an independent authority could review it.

The proposed reforms come four years after Congress passed legislation that was supposed to help counties modernize their voting equipment and avoid another hanging chad debacle like the one during the 2000 presidential election in Florida.

In 2002, lawmakers earmarked billions of dollars for counties to buy new computerized voting hardware and software. According to Washington, D.C. based consulting firm Election Data Services Inc., nearly two out of five registered voters nationwide live in counties that will rely primarily on e-voting.

But scientists said the systems were vulnerable to hackers and malfunctions; the federal government had not set up a viable system to regulate the industry. Voters in five states, Colorado, Arizona, California, Pennsylvania and Georgia sued to prohibit the use of e-voting terminals.

In one of the worst fiascoes this year, Maryland election officials forgot to send the cards primary voters needed to activate the electronic machines at their polling places. Some voters had to cast provisional ballots on scraps of paper, even on campaign literature handed to them outside their polling places.

Also in September, Princeton University researchers announced they had intentionally developed a virus that could spread on a voting machine. They said that their code could change every ballot cast on the machine, and that a forensic examination would find nothing wrong.

``What we're hoping is that all the efforts focusing on elections make a difference and make more votes get counted correctly,'' Selker said.