Local election likely to sail smoothly

Adam Milasincic

The electronic voting machines used in Portage County and 46 other Ohio jurisdictions have come under fire as unreliable and potentially fraudulent, but the county’s top election official says voters here can be sure their ballots will count on Nov. 7.

“I think they can be absolutely confident that we did the procedures correctly,” said Lois Enlow, director of the Portage County Board of Elections. “The voting in Portage County will be secure, as it is in 99.5 percent of the other locations.”

Since 2005, the county has used and maintained 593 touch-screen machines manufactured by Diebold, a Canton-based company that is the world’s top ATM producer.

Critics from academia to Rolling Stone magazine have suggested the technology is at best inaccurate and at worst the linchpin of a Republican vote-stealing scam.

Writing in the Oct. 5 edition of Rolling Stone, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. asks, “Will the next election be hacked?” Kennedy previously has linked Diebold to alleged election fraud in the 2004 presidential election, an assertion the company has dismissed as “shoddy reporting.”

A series of studies by computer and election experts also has claimed that Diebold’s AccuVote-TS system is susceptible to manipulation by individuals with extensive knowledge of software.

In a presentation last month before a U.S. House committee, Princeton professor Edward Felten implanted a virus onto a Diebold machine to overturn the result of a fictional race between George Washington and Benedict Arnold.

“Malicious software running on a single voting machine can steal votes with little if any risk of detection,” Felten told the committee. “The malicious software can modify all of the records, audit logs and counters kept by the voting machine, so that even careful forensic examination of these records will find nothing amiss.”

Diebold issued a statement noting that Felten’s study required him to tamper with security tape, numbered tags and 18 enclosure screws to access the machine – which always remains in plain view of election workers. Additionally, the machines are not connected to a network and therefore could not transmit viruses to other election stations.

Enlow said most of the studies that criticize electronic voting contain hypotheticals that are far removed from actual election conditions. In Ohio, county election boards and precinct workers are composed of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans, and no individual would have unfettered access to a machine.

“It would take a multitude of criminal minds in order to accommodate what some of these folks are saying,” Enlow said. “Can it happen? Yes. Do I think it will happen? No. We’re not a bunch of criminals, and that’s what you’d have to have to do this.”

Enlow said most voters in Portage County have seemed to embrace the technology. She has received some phone calls questioning the security of the Diebold machines, but most of the criticism is driven by statewide policy groups and commentators outside Ohio.

Diebold has been criticized by many Democrats since 2003, when former CEO Walden O’Dell said he was committed to “helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president.” O’Dell and other Diebold executives had donated over $300,000 to Republican causes, but the company banned that practice in 2004.

Electronic voting technology emerged in the late 1990s but jetted to the forefront after the 2000 presidential election. The 2002 Help America Vote Act established and funded a national streamlining of election procedures, and the result was a large-scale move to touch-screen and optical scan ballot systems.

Advocates of the act said it would increase voter confidence and prevent a replay of the 2000 Florida debacle. The act has served that purpose, but Congress should take additional action to ease concerns about electronic voting security, said Ryan Keating, a spokesman for Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, whose district includes most of Portage County.

“Everything has its drawbacks,” Keating said. “Some people like the machines. Some people think they’re convenient. If done right, the machines could be secure, and there could be a paper trail. Unfortunately, when you don’t have the protections there, you leave the door open for an unscrupulous individual to come in and hack the votes.”

Ryan has co-sponsored legislation requiring all U.S. election officials to maintain a paper record of votes. That practice is already mandatory for Ohio counties. In Portage County, the Diebold machines record votes on a computer memory card but also produce a hard copy that resembles a cash-register receipt.

Voters who want to bypass the machines entirely still have the option to use a paper ballot upon request, Enlow said.

The touch-screen machines are at least as secure as Portage County’s former punch card system, Enlow said. She noted that the integrity of election results essentially depends on the expertise and competence of the officials in charge. The main result of switching to an electronic system has been a three-fold increase in cost and manpower.

Those costs loom as a major short-term problem for counties nationwide, said Samuel Gresham, director of Common Cause Ohio, a liberal-leaning election reform organization. Once funding expires under the Help America Vote Act, counties will be left to maintain and pay for expensive systems without federal aid.

“What happens to computers?” Gresham asked. “They break down. What we’ve done is put a hard drive in every county but nobody to maintain it.”

Gresham said the costs – and concerns about the basic trustworthiness of electronic voting – could combine to produce an ominous result in Ohio. With the recent availability of no-fault absentee ballots and an increasing number of provisional ballots – which are not counted on election night – set the stage for havoc in a tight contest.

“We’ve got a perfect storm coming here,” he said. “Let’s say there is a split in the Senate race between DeWine and Brown. How do you get all that together in time?”

He also echoed Enlow in noting that elections are never truly national or statewide – but separate contests in each county and precinct. That means voting could proceed smoothly in one location while fraud could reign in another.

In spite of those concerns, voting in Portage County is likely to proceed without problems – as has been the case for years, Enlow said. With a well-trained staff and security measures in place, she said she’s confident the new machines won’t change Portage County’s record for clean elections.

Contact public affairs reporter Adam Milasincic at [email protected].