Parnell asks for review of state voting machines

Flaws with the system?

Posted: Friday, September 14, 2007

Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell has asked the University of Alaska to conduct a review and recommend possible changes to the state's electronic voting system.

The review comes in the wake of recent reports out of California documenting significant security flaws with three of seven voting systems there, including the Diebold touch screens and optical scanners used in Alaska and other states.

In a letter to UAA Chancellor Fran Ulmer, a former lieutenant governor and overseer of the Division of Elections herself, Parnell said he had recently reviewed the University of California, Berkeley, study that led California Secretary of State Debra Bowen to withdraw approval for the equipment's use in California.

Parnell told Ulmer that Bowen had listed several security measures that must be implemented in her state before approval could be restored. He said Alaska already meets or exceeds those measures and is considering additional security measures as well.

"Nevertheless, as you can appreciate from your own experience as lieutenant governor, I and the Division's Director, Whitney Brewster, want to do everything in the state's power to ensure the reliability, accuracy and security of our voting systems," Parnell told Ulmer.

The university has not yet said it would conduct the review.

Computer experts at the University of California and at Princeton University, in New Jersey, conducted California's evaluation, stating it their report that the Diebold system did not meet requirements for a security-critical system, and saying that it was built on "an inherently fragile design and suffers from implementation flaws that can expose the entire voting system to attacks."

That could include an attack from "a single skilled individual with temporary access to a single voting machine," the report found.

An executive summary of the report said the system was vulnerable to malicious software, was susceptible to viruses, failed to protect ballot secrecy, and was also vulnerable to "malicious insiders" meaning it lacked adequate controls to ensure that county workers with certain accesses would not exceed their authority.

"Anyone with access to a county's GEMS (election management system) server could tamper with ballot definitions or election results and could also introduce malicious software into the GEMS server itself or into the county's voting machines."

The report also warned that fixing the Diebold system's individual defects piecemeal without addressing underlying causes stemming from "deep architectural flaws" would be "unlikely to render the system secure."

The safest way to repair the Diebold system, the report concluded, was to reengineer it "so it is secure by design."

Division Director Whitney Brewster said Alaska uses exactly the same Diebold system as is used in California. She noted that the California study did not include some security processes and procedures, such as chain-of-custody measures and testing, that might have mitigated at least some of the findings. Nevertheless, there were enough red flags to raise real concerns for the integrity of the Alaska system.

"That's why we wanted to make sure we are as airtight as possible here in Alaska," she said, adding that if the university agrees to conduct the Alaska study, completion would be anticipated early enough to implement changes prior to the election in 2008.

If the university declines, there are other experts to whom the state could go, Brewster said. What is imperative, she added, is that an independent third party conducts the study. The perception that elections are fair is the bottom line.

"We absolutely want voters to have confidence that things are above board and airtight," Brewster said. "If the perception is out there (that the system is flawed), that's a problem."

Brewster did note that the electronic voting system in Alaska does produce a paper trail, which is an issue in some parts of the country. In addition, an audit conducted during the certification process hand counts ballots from one precinct in every Alaska House district. If issues arise, the entire district is recounted, she said.

Monday, Parnell and members of his staff met with Alaska Democratic Party Chair Patti Higgins, Democratic Reps. Lindsey Holmes and Berta Gardner, both of Anchorage, and Kay Brown, communications director for the Democratic National Committee in Alaska, to discuss the need for a study.

In a press release Tuesday, Higgins said the state was moving in the right direction in proposing to conduct a thorough technical review of the system and its security procedures.

"Time is running short to correct some very serious problems that have come to light, and they recognize the urgency of fixing our voting system before the elections in 2008," Higgins said after meeting Monday with the Parnell and Brewster.

"This is not an issue that is going away anytime soon," Brewster said. "I look forward to the study being conducted so that we are sure we are providing the best service possible."

Hal Spence can be reached at

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