Record Number of E-Votes to Be Cast on Super Tuesday

With a record number of voters casting electronic ballots (searchon Super Tuesday (search), election officials from California to Maryland are beefing up security to prevent problems ranging from software glitches to hackers.

In California, new security measures range from random tests of touch-screen machines by independent computer experts to a recommendation that poll workers prevent voters from carrying cell phones or other wireless devices into voting booths.

At least 10 million people in at least two dozen states are expected to cast primary ballots on machines built by Diebold (search), Sequoia Voting Systems (search), Electronic Systems & Software (searchand other vendors.

And the electronic voting trend is accelerating: By November's presidential election, at least 50 million people will vote on touch-screens, compared with 55 million using paper, punch cards or lever machines, according to Washington-based Election Data Services (search).

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Voting registrars say paperless ballots save money and eliminate hanging chads and other problems associated with antiquated systems. It's impossible to accidentally vote twice on a touch-screen, and the machines can toggle between different languages for people who don't speak English.

"The modernization of the nation's voting infrastructure is long overdue," said Alfie Charles, spokesman for Oakland-based Sequoia, which builds the machines as many as 4 million voters in California and Maryland will use Tuesday.

But computer scientists have been protesting the switch. They're particularly concerned that few of the computers provide paper records, making it nearly impossible to have meaningful recounts, or to prove that vote tampering hasn't occurred.

Politicians, voter-rights advocates and even some secretaries of state have recently acknowledged that the systems could theoretically fail — with catastrophic consequences.

In several software and hardware tests, critics have shown it's easy to jam microchip-embedded smart cards into machines, or alter and delete some votes — in some cases simply by ripping out wires. They've cracked passwords to gain access to computer servers and showed that some systems relying on Microsoft Windows lacked up-to-date security patches that should have been downloaded from the Internet.

California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley issued recommendations last month for elections officials to bolster security in 12 counties using touch-screens. Those counties account for about 41 percent of California's registered voters.

He demanded that Diebold Inc., the North Canton, Ohio-based manufacturer of touch-screen systems, provide his office with the "source code" of its elections software.

Diebold promptly complied, and company representatives traveled to California on Monday to help poll workers if they have problems. "We're already out here to work with our customers to ensure a safe, secure and accurate election," spokesman David Bear said in a phone interview from San Diego.

Shelley also wants independent, random tests of touch-screen machines.

Maryland, which spent $55.6 million on 16,000 touch-screen computers earlier this year, is also taking precautions.

Computer experts there told lawmakers in January that the hardware contained "vulnerabilities that could be exploited by malicious individuals." Among their surprises: all of Maryland's machines had two identical locks, which could be opened by any one of 32,000 keys. They also found it easy to pick the locks.

Linda Lamone, Maryland's elections administrator, said each machine would be covered in security "tamper tape" and include a protective seal. The tape changes from black to red if someone tries to remove it.

"We're good to go," Lamone said. "We have tested this equipment extensively, and there is absolutely no evidence that there's been any tampering."