Some Want More Info. Before Changing Ballot Machines

Some Want More Info. Before Changing Ballot Machines

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A group of Utah residents is calling for state officials to move more deliberately before making a multimillion dollar decision on how voters should cast ballots.

The Utah committee appointed to evaluate ballot options has already decided not to bring new machines in for the November elections. But a group of activists says the committee isn't waiting long enough, because existing technology to record electronic votes is full of bugs and can't guarantee a tamper-free and accurate election.

About 50 people gathered on the steps of the state Capitol Tuesday to ask the Voting Equipment Selection Committee to expand its request for contract proposals to serve the state's voting needs. The same thing was happening in 18 other states, according to organizers.

The tabulation revamp comes after the 2000 vote-count imbroglio in Florida, which eventually left the fate of the U.S. presidency in the hands of the Supreme Court and catapulted the words "hanging chad" into the national lexicon.

A federal law enacted after that political dustup provides billions of dollars in funding for electronic machines, requires each state to evaluate its election system and mandates that each polling place have at least one option for disabled voters by 2006. Electronic machines are considered by many to be the best way to meet that guideline.

Utah is now one of only a handful of states that still use a mostly punchcard-based system, said State Elections Director Amy Naccarato.

Naccarato said the state-appointed committee is already moving carefully, but it's working against federal deadlines and wants to get equipment in place for testing and employee training. She said if the state doesn't buy machines by 2006, they'd lose some of their federal funding.

"We would like to see whatever it is we decide on here by next spring," she said.

But Alan Dechert, president of the nonprofit Open Voting Consortium, said most available electronic balloting systems couldn't be trusted to ensure a fair election.

"The concept of invisible ballots created with secret software is fundamentally flawed," he said at the Capitol rally.

Further complicating things for the commission is a general insistence by companies that make vote-recording machines to keep their software codes private because of trade secret concerns.

The Capitol activists called for the federal government to extend the deadline for state compliance and the commission to expand its requests for contracts to encourage companies to apply with public software codes. They also want machines to be fitted with equipment that will print a record of the vote for verification.

Barbara Simmons, a former president of the Association for Computing Machinery who spoke at the rally, said private codes could jeopardize machine security by keeping bugs secret to everyone but hackers skilled enough to exploit them.

She also said the "trade secret" defense was a dubious argument.

"What they're doing is not rocket science," she said. "These are things we understand. There's nothing novel about them."

Simmons told those gathered at the rally that officials should hold off until more accurate machines are available.

"If I had a single message ... that message would be 'Wait,"' she said. "There's better technology on the way."

Naccarato said the Utah commission studying the balloting machines has met with the activists and that some of their concerns are valid. However, she said the law isn't making it easy on them to move gingerly.

"I don't think we take it lightly," she said. "I don't think anyone wants to buy anything that's not secure, but we also have these federal demands we have to meet."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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