By Pat Beall and Adam Playford, The Palm Beach Post, Fla.
Harri Hursti may be the best-known hacker you've never heard of. Largely unknown to the voting public, the Finnish computer programmer gained national notoriety among elections officials in 2005 when he broke into voting equipment in Leon County -- at the supervisor of elections' invitation -- just to show it could be done.
Hursti has since gone on to examine voting systems for other states. His conclusion: "Some systems are better than others, but none is nearly good enough."
In fact, a decade's worth of Florida vote counting has been tripped up by technology of all makes and models, despite a state certification process designed to guard against such problems. Nationally, studies of the secret code underpinning election software have uncovered an array of troubles.
The stakes are high. "These are fundamental constitutional rights," said Candice Hoke, associate law professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and a founding director of the Center for Election Integrity. "It's not a matter of 'oh well, the technology didn't work this time.' The right to vote is not participation only; it also is the right to have the vote counted as cast."
Time and time again, that hasn't happened:
In Union County in 2002, voting machines read both Democratic and Republican ballots as Republican. The error was caught. The vendor paid for a recount.
In Broward County in 2004, under certain circumstances, equipment from Elections Systems and Software could not count beyond about 32,000 votes in a precinct. After hitting that total, it started counting backward.
In Sarasota County in 2006, approximately 17,800 undervotes, in which voters had not made a selection in a tight congressional race, triggered with ESandS' iVotronic machines. Investigations followed, and some critics say the incident never has been adequately explained.
In Hillsborough County in 2008, a Premier Elections Solutions system computer server crashed when early voting results were fed into it. In 2010, memory cards there failed; a spokesman for the supervisor of elections said the company admitted error in that instance.
"The best software written by the wealthiest companies is buggy because software is really hard to get right," said Douglas W. Jones, a professor of computer science at the University of Iowa and co-author of Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count? "It's not the kind of thing you blame on one vendor."
Researchers have unearthed bugs almost everywhere they look. A University of Pennsylvania review of an ESandS product used in Ohio found "numerous exploitable vulnerabilities in nearly every component," enabling attacks that could falsify precinct results and erase audit records that might catch problems.
A Florida State University of a Diebold elections system found that, even after upgrades, "many documented vulnerabilities remain. The system retains significant weaknesses."
Princeton and Lehigh University professors found that Sequoia's AVC Advantage vote-counting system was easily hacked by replacing just one computer chip. "This 'hack' takes just seven minutes to perform," . "The fraud cannot practically be detected."
Florida's tough certification system
Making sure voting machines work correctly in Florida falls to the state Division of Elections, which certifies equipment as sound before it can be used by counties.
"I will tell you that Florida is one of the toughest states to get a voting system certified in, and we make no apologies for that," then-Secretary of State Kurt Browning told Palm Beach County commissioners in 2007.
That means an extensive battery of tests, most of which are more about reliability than security: Does the system work when exposed to cold? Heat? Humidity? State elections officials even lift every piece of equipment the length of a ruler, then drop it eight times, once on each corner, to make sure it still works.
But neither independent testing nor the state's stamp of approval is a surefire way to spot trouble.
In 2007, for instance, federal authorities temporarily barred independent lab Ciber Inc. from testing voting systems after finding flawed quality-control procedures; Ciber already had tested many of the nation's electronic voting systems.
In what is now known as the Hursti Hack, Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho points out that the vulnerable Diebold equipment had been certified by the state. Tallahassee, said Sancho, "didn't find the bug."
In the recent Wellington snafu, the Division of Elections blamed problems in part on a confusing software system with nearly incomprehensible instructions. Both the software and the instructions were certified.
Two other parts of the county's system also passed certification but don't work, said Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher: the system's modems, which she says are unusable, and the high-speed scanners' ability to read multipage ballots during recounts. The latter delayed results in a tight school board race for days in 2010.
Further, problems deep within a system can remain hidden for years. California's Humboldt County ran its state-certified computer software system, known as GEMS 1.18.19, without incident through multiple elections.
Then, in 2008, the system deleted 197 votes. It was a small number, but Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich notified the California secretary of state, who sent a two-man team to look more closely at the software.
What they found was alarming. Among other things, it was easy to erase the trail of votes. The manufacturer had known about software errors for four years without notifying anyone.
The California secretary of state decertified the entire system on the grounds it couldn't be trusted. In 2009, Florida's Division of Elections strongly encouraged counties using GEMS 1.18.19 to upgrade their system.
By then, a version of GEMS 1.18.19 had counted votes for at least five Florida counties in 2008. It currently counts votes in Glades and Polk counties, where, supervisors of elections report, there have been no problems.
It remains certified in Florida.
©2012 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)