Voting machines seem to scare people out of their wits.
They are an engineering problem. And a computer problem. And a money problem. And some fear they could threaten democracy itself.
That’s what came out of a several-hours meeting Thursday afternoon at Menlo Park City Hall, chaired by State Senator Debra Bowen, chairwoman of the Senate Elections, Reapportionment and Constitutional Amendments Committee.
About 75 people attended from all over California, including 10 “Raging Grannies,” wildly dressed and dancing to the accompaniment of a ukulele as people arrived for the 1 p.m. hearing. A nearby sign protested: “CIA Voting Software: It’s Time for Paper Ballots.”
Sen. Bowen said leading vendors, such as Diebold (which also makes ATMs), were invited to attend but declined.
The hearing was entitled: “Are California’s voting systems accurate, reliable and secure? A critical look at the Federal testing and certification process.”
David Dill, professor of computer science at Stanford University and founder of the Verified Voting Foundation, and Peter Neumann, principal scientist at the computer science lab at SRI International in Menlo Park were among four featured experts at the hearing.
Others were Aviel Rubin, professor of computer science and director of the Information Institute at Johns Hopkins University, and Dan Wallach, professor of computer science at Rice University.
Warren Slocum, assessor, county clerk and recorder of San Mateo County, also spoke about local concerns.
“California requires vendors to come to California to be tested by an independent panel of experts,” Rubin said, noting that questions asked include: Is it federally qualified? What are the limitations of testing?
“Results should be made public, and all tests should be available to the public.”
Wallach said computer security is an “engineering problem, and the most interesting engineering problem I’ve ever looked at. Standards now are much better than in 2002” when much of the currently available software was being developed.
Software affects everything but “nothing is done about it; there is no testing,” he warned
Bowen said software “has to be built to official standards, but absolute security is very difficult.”
Dill said auditing should be “more stringent, but it’s a difficult problem.
“Checks and balances in counting is a central point.”
Neumann insisted “there is no such thing as perfect security. Even ATMs have security problems.” With voting machines, he warned, there’s “no real incentive to do it right, but it’s essential to have full openness in the process.”
Whatever machines are built should be built for “long-term life,” Neumann said.
Wallach said part of the engineering problem is controlling costs. He reminded the audience that “paper has a long-term history of election fraud -- but paper can be checked by machines.”
The voting system is a “terrible business to be in, because every state has a different system,” he said.
“There are no easy answers,” said Neumann. “We’re dealing with a flawed process.”
“We need openness, reliable and secure systems. We must design systems capable of solving all problems -- and California has to initiate the process,” Wallach said.
“We can’t compromise on transparency,” said Rubin. “An ounce of audit is worth a pound of prevention.”
Slocum said the “most important thing is an independent audit of elections.” Election workers, he added, “should be recognized for their importance, just as police and health workers are.”
He noted that 13 million voters in 16 counties currently don’t have certified voting systems.
One alternative to machines -- voting by mail -- is done statewide in Oregon but has been approved only in eight California counties.
After the experts testified, 28 members of the public were signed up to speak, including Arthur Keller of Palo Alto.
“Imagine stealing an election,” Keller said. “Security should make it more difficult and expensive to do so.” He is a volunteer precinct inspector in Santa Clara County.
Ron Crane of Santa Cruz said that “if machines are used, they should totally public, and have parallel testing. Rip them to shreds. If there is a discrepancy, why did it happen?”
Machines, he said, cost $3,000 to $4,000 each and are “not necessary for most people.”
Alan Dechert of Granite Bay, Calif., and president of the Open Voting Consortium, said a voting-certification process should be established in California.