Are Voting Machines Reliable?

voting, keteyian, election CBS

Nothing stirs political blood quite like an incumbent's own survival, which was a big reason that members of Congress were questioning the security of electronic voting machines Thursday, CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian reports.

The machines in question include the Diebold Accu Vote TSX. Translation: Your ballot box.

This November, for the first time, more than 80 percent of all votes in this country will be cast or counted electronically. It's the result of the federal law that Congress passed in the wake of the Bush-Gore "hanging chad" debacle, requiring that states and counties phase out paper ballots in favor of touch-screens and optical scanners.

"There will be glitches, but I think in the end result, you can have confidence in the system," says Paul DeGregorio, chairman of the Election Assistance Commission.

But lately, trust has been shaken. In a recent Maryland primary, officials forgot to include 13,000 electronic access cards needed to activate machines, resulting in voter chaos. In Ohio's biggest county, there were problems with the paper backup system — critical in any recount.

"These things are sort of like wrestling octopuses," says Keith Cunningham, an Ohio election official.

"The more people understand computers and the more they work with computers, the less thrilled they are about electronic voting," adds Avi Rubin, a computer science professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

On Capitol Hill, members are especially concerned about electronic voting because there are about 40 razor-thin congressional races that could tip the balance of power in Congress.

For example, if a computer virus infected a voting machine, it could tilt an election.

Princeton University's Ed Felten demonstrated this when he obtained a Diebold machine and ran a mock presidential election. Three votes were cast for George Washington, and none for Benedict Arnold. But then, a computer virus went to work. Suddenly, Arnold won, two votes to one.

"Either you switch to a backup system, like a low-tech paper ballot, or you just cross your fingers and hope for the best," Felten says.

Diebold calls the study "unrealistic and inaccurate" and says Felten hacked outdated software. Next week, the federal government will propose new standards for machine certification. But those standards won't take effect until January — two months after a lot of political fates will be decided.

  • Melissa McNamara

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