"IN THEIR ZEAL to get their hands on federal money, elections officials are giving away the ballot," thunders Paul Berendt, chair of the Washington State Democrats. "That is wrong."
Berendt and the state Democratic Party are in the thick of a furious battle between an inchoate, loose coalition of concerned citizens and the professionals who run the state's elections—39 county auditors and Republican Secretary of State Sam Reed. The two groups are squaring off over the widespread introduction of touch-screen voting machines. Election officials believe the machines represent a significant technological advance for the Washington electorate. Many voters are distrustful of the machines and want to ensure their reliability by requiring them to print a paper ballot, to be used as an audit trail. An august group of professors of computer science is backing the skeptics.
David Dill, professor of computer science at Stanford University, has started a nationwide lobbying campaign for paper ballots that includes a petition signed by more than 200 professors with expertise in computer science from places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, Princeton, and Cornell. Endorsers include MIT Professor Ron Rivest, co-winner of this year's Turing Award, the highest honor in computer science, for his work on the algorithm that is widely used to make Internet transactions more secure. "Almost every [academic] expert in electronic voting is on my list," says Dill. The bottom line for Dill and his allies: These machines can be hacked. Says Dill, "The level of complacency about computer security among elections people is alarming." He adds sarcastically, "If voters haven't used computers recently, they might think computers are perfect. The basic problem is you have a black box. The vote is recorded internally. You can't see what is recorded. You have to trust the machine."