More voting machine problems: Florida, again

Officials discover that Diebold optical-scan machines can easily switch votes between candidates.

Published August 2, 2007 4:28PM (EDT)

Last week brought news of new hacks against touch-screen voting machines produced by Diebold, Sequoia, and Hart InterCivic, among the nation's largest vendors of electronic voting equipment. Now there's a report that optical-scan machines are flawed: their memory cards can be surreptitiously switched, rejiggering the vote count. The report was obtained by the Associated Press; it comes out of -- where else? -- Florida.

Optical-scan machines are considered the best voting technology in the country. On these systems, a voter marks a paper ballot that is then immediately counted by a machine installed within the voting precinct; because the machine can tell a voter to re-vote if she's made a mistake (selected two people in the presidential race, say) the systems have been shown to cut down on errors.

Unlike touch-screen machines, optical-scan systems also produce a paper trail. The paper ballots can be manually counted to check on the integrity of the counting equipment.

The new report, produced by researchers at Florida State University on behalf of Florida's Secretary of State Kurt Browning, focuses on optical-scan systems produced by Diebold. Researchers found that "someone with only brief access to a machine could replace a memory card with one preprogramed to read one candidate's votes as counting for another," the AP says.

The good news is that Diebold has vowed to fix all the problems soon; it says it will meet an Aug. 17 deadline imposed by the state. "To Diebold's credit, they have come to the table and been willing to get these changes made and get them made timely," Browning told the AP.

You might wonder why it'd be such a disaster if someone did manage to switch the memory cards on an optical-scan machine -- after all, wouldn't authorities realize the fraud when they conduct an audit of the paper ballots, seeing that the counts differ from those in the machine? Oh, but there's your mistake!

You thought voting officials examine the paper ballots -- but according to the report from NYU's Brennan Center for Justice that I told you about yesterday, most states don't require officials to conduct any sort of audit of paper ballots. The few states that do audit paper ballots, meanwhile, don't use the best procedures to do so.

You'd think there'd be some kind of law.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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