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Around the States

Alaska Lt. Governor Seeks Independent Review of State’s Voting System PDF  | Print |  Email
By Warren Stewart, Verified Voting Foundation   
October 09, 2007
Joining the ever-growing list of states that are initiating voting system reviews, the Peninsula Clarion has reported that Alaska 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.

According to the Clarion article Parnell wrote a letter to University Chancellor Fran Ulmer, a former lieutenant governor and overseer of the Division of Elections herself noting the stringent security measures established by the California Secretary of State as a condition for the use of electronic voting equipment. Parnell claimed that Alaska already met or exceeded the measures undertaken in California but wanted to consider additional measures to improve voting system security.

Alaska employs a paper ballot optical scan system manufactured by Diebold Election Systems statewide, with one Diebold TSX touchscreen voting machine in each polling place to provide accessibility for voters with disabilities. These systems were included in the California review and were found to be “vulnerable to malicious software, was susceptible to viruses, failed to protect ballot secrecy”, and lacked “adequate controls to ensure that county workers with certain accesses would not exceed their authority.”

The state elections department has never explained anomalies in vote totals from the 2004 general election. After resisting the disclosure of raw data from the election for over a year, the state finally provided the state’s Democratic Party with data that showed evidence of manipulation.

Parnell, a Republican, met with the Alaska Democratic Party to discuss the proposed review, and Democratic Party chair Patti Higgins released a statement after the meeting. "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 noted.

Election Division Director Whitney Brewster, while defending the state’s voting system and post election audit procedures, recognized that there were enough “red flags” in the California reports “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.

Brewster stressed that it was imperative 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."

Perception though is actually only part of the issue, noted VerifiedVoting Foundation founder David Dill. “In elections, a ‘perception’ of a lack of integrity is indeed a big ‘problem’ - if people don't believe election results, democracy breaks down,” he commented.  "It's not enough for elections to be accurate. Voters have to know they're accurate."

The problem is precisely that. How do voters know whether the election results are in fact accurate? Whether through malicious attack or unintentional error, inaccuracies in electronic vote tabulation can go undetected, and the comprehensive review of voting systems in California demonstrated that current systems have severe security vulnerabilities.

“It is a problem if a poll worker could secretly control the recording and counting of every electronic vote in a county,” warned Dill. “It's a problem even if no one chooses to exploit that vulnerability - especially since we can't tell whether it was exploited.”
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