My turn: Will every vote be counted correctly?

Posted: Sunday, August 20, 2006

Whether your vote will be counted properly is an open question. Alaska's vote-counting system has flaws that could threaten the integrity of upcoming elections, according to voting technology experts.

Sound off on the important issues at

A report on how to protect elections in an electronic world was issued in June by a task force on voting security at the Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law. This nonpartisan think tank's report details how Diebold's optical scan and touch screen machines could be attacked and votes manipulated. (

The task force found more than 120 security threats that affect the three most common electronic voting systems. Alaska has two of these systems: 1) Diebold optical scanners, and 2) Diebold touch screen machines with voter verified paper trail, to be used here for the first time in August.

The touch screen machines are particularly unreliable, insecure and vulnerable to attack. Diebold's ubiquitous optical scanners also are vulnerable.

In Alaska, questions remain about the vote counts from Diebold's optical scanners that showed a massive misreporting of votes in Alaska's 2004 general election, with turnout reported at more than 200 percent in 16 of the 40 state House districts and other anomalies. The Alaska Democratic Party has sued the Division of Elections in an effort to get public records from that election. A court hearing will begin Sept. 25 that will determine whether the State must release the electronic database containing those votes.

Since Walden O'Dell, Diebold's former chief executive, infamously told Republicans in an August, 2003 fund-raising letter that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year," questions have mounted about the reliability of Diebold's voting systems. (For an eye-opening account of what happened in Ohio in 2004, see the article by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in the June 1, 2006 Rolling Stone magazine.)

Aggressive action is needed to restore Alaskans' confidence in our election system.

What can Alaskans do? A long-term solution is to elect Democrats this fall. Democrats will solve these problems, and restore non-partisan leadership to the Division of Elections.

Reforms we support include:

• Ban wireless components on all voting machines.

Machines with wireless components are particularly vulnerable to attack. Wireless components make it possible for an individual to insert malicious code from a portable digital assistant.

Unfortunately, Alaska's new touch screen machines are designed for wireless communications. Every touch screen machine should be audited and all wireless components disabled before any are used in our upcoming elections.

• Make verification procedures transparent and publicly observable.

In 2005, Rep. Berta Gardner (D-Anchorage) authored an amendment that requires significant hand counting of ballots, which will be done for the first time this year.

The Division should implement this law with transparent and publicly observable procedures. Independent auditors should be assigned immediately before the hand counts, and these should begin immediately after the election. In addition to precinct counts, the Division should hand count absentee, early and questioned ballots, which were misreported by the Division in 2004.

• Test machines on election day.

Another safeguard Alaska should implement is "parallel testing" while voting is underway, by taking randomly selected machines off line for testing.

• Address evidence of fraud or error.

Alaska should adopt detailed procedures to deal with any problems found in the hand counts and audits.

• Make source code public.

Source code is the set of instructions that run the voting machines and tabulators. Alaska should prohibit any election contracts that rely on "proprietary" processes or programming. We should require open publication of a vendor's source code, or "open source" programming, for all election-related computers and software.

More must be done to restore public confidence in our voting system. To keep vote counting honest and under constant public scrutiny, changes are needed now.

• Kay Brown, a former member of the Alaska House of Representatives, is a spokeswoman for the Democratic Party.

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