Electronic Voting Worries Add to Booth Tensions

As Election Day approaches, the prospect of hackers stealing an election is capturing the attention of some observers.

Election reform in the past two years has centered on modernizing supposedly antiquated systems, most commonly by replacing punch cards with computers.

But some say they are concerned that those newer systems could result in a new array of snafus in the next presidential election.

From software glitches to operator error, the new machines have been more problematic than the old-school butterfly ballot at times. But now experts are concerned that hackers may use the updated technology to steal an election.

"It is a matter of when, not if. Systems will always be compromised if there is enough incentive, motive to do so." said Patrice Rapalus, director of the Computer Security Institute.

When the 2000 presidential election produced confusion in Florida, many counties rushed to overhaul the way voters cast their ballots.

"We have, I think, a world-class elections law that will be implemented in 2002 so people will have full confidence that their vote will matter," Florida Gov. Jeb Bush predicted in May 2001.

But already this year, problems arose over faulty voting booth machines during the Democratic primary in Florida, and attorneys for both parties have begun preparing legal strategies for post-Nov. 5 battles.

What lawyers may not be able to argue their way through is technological manipulation unless a culprit can be found.

"Any technology that's created, no matter how good you make it, as soon as you have somebody on the inside working against you, it renders most of the protections we can take advantage of useless," said Jeff Jonas, a computer security expert.

Jonas specializes in consulting for casino security. Most gambling halls have computerized slot machines and keno games. He said that despite safeguards, no machine is invulnerable.

"People on the inside have reprogrammed chips. They put new chips in the machines," he said.

Casino computer cheats reportedly steal $40 million every year. One programmer caught rigging electronic bingo killed himself last month. Another man stole $50,000 by loading a virus into gambling machines.

"It's the age-old problem with technology. The human element is the weakest link," Rapalus said.

Many techies, including Jonas, insist computer voting is safe. In Snohomish County, Wash., for instance, the machines are put through a battery of tests then are secured to make sure the votes cast are the votes counted.

"That test is run sometimes immediately before the election. It's sealed up, then opened up on the day of the election and it is run again to initialize the programming to make sure nothing has inadvertently happened," said Snohomish County Auditor Bob Terwilliger.

Of course, hackers have been able to get through firewalls at Microsoft and the Pentagon to name a few of the most secure computer systems, so getting past the county registrars may not be so tough, especially when the prize is public office.

If problems are discovered, critics are most worried that there will be no paper trail to let poll workers go back and count ballots by hand.

Fox News' Dan Springer contributed to this report.