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Voting machines hype is without foundation



Published: Fri, October 27, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



By PAUL DeGREGORIO

MCCLATCHY-TRIBUNE

Americans have been bombarded lately with tales about how easy it is to hack into a voting machine. Academics, computer scientists and others tell us they have done it and that we cannot trust voting systems, specifically electronic or touch screen systems.

Ironically, all of these experiments took place in the sterile environment of a laboratory. In each instance, these experts only demonstrated that with unlimited time and resources, they could hack a voting machine. What does this prove? Nothing. Is there any proof that a voting system has successfully been hacked during an election? No. Can the hype over hacking discourage voters from participating in our elections? It certainly can.

The real question is whether voting systems are secure enough to withstand potential threats on Election Day. And the answer is yes. Ultimately, real security is the result of systematic preparation, which includes prevention, detection, reaction and recovery. It is not just software that protects a voting system; it also is protected by rigorous testing, physical barriers, election officials, poll workers, law enforcement and voters.

Secure locations

Election officials are working hard to make sure voting equipment is stored in secure locations, and that they have established a chain of custody for the storage, maintenance and transport of polling equipment. Prior to Election Day, officials test and retest voting equipment as well as train staff and poll workers.

Debate about making sure our voting systems are secure, accurate and reliable is healthy. Conducting hacking experiments without working with election officials in a real world election environment is not. I strongly encourage experts and others with concerns to join forces with election officials and identify the real security risks -- set up mock polling places with all of the Election Day safeguards, including poll workers. Even more useful would be for these experts to serve as poll workers or technicians on Election Day to gain real-world experience. That said, a word of caution to potential hackers: anyone trying to hack an election voting machine will be prosecuted. Voters' rights should never be tampered with -- for any reason.

I have worked in the field of elections at home and abroad for more than 21 years, and whether voters are using paper ballots or electronic voting machines: details matter. It is just as important to make sure the voting equipment is working properly as it is to have procedures and well trained people in place to control access and maintenance to the equipment properly.

The bottom line is that our nation's voting equipment, election results and election officials can and should be trusted. Election officials are some of the hardest working, most dedicated public servants in the country, and they welcome input and support to keep our democracy strong and elections trustworthy. They deserve constructive criticism and solutions, not baseless attacks and unfounded accusations about the equipment they use. Attacking their integrity and the system in broad strokes is even less productive.

Change is good

This election year is one of change, challenge and progress in how our citizens will vote. At least one-third of Americans will vote on new equipment, many contests may be close, and voters (hopefully) will turn out in great numbers at polling places throughout the nation. For the first time, thanks to the Help America Vote Act and modern voting equipment, many people with disabilities will have the ability to vote independently for the first time. Provisional voting is now available in every state. We have come a long way since 2000, but challenges related to the transition to new equipment remain. But changes along the way are a good thing because it builds trust in election systems that can be verified to further empower confidence among voters.

Americans should be confident that their vote will be counted whether they touch a screen or fill in an oval. The integrity of the system is not in hands of hackers, professors, interest groups or politicians in Washington -- it is managed by local election officials as it always has been. No one should be intimidated by the hype over hacking. Vote on November 7. You can count on it.

Paul DeGregorio is chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Washington, D.C. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.




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