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Flaws in optical-scan machines can leave them vulnerable to attack, a study finds.
Published Aug. 1, 2007

Florida's optical-scan voting machines are still flawed, despite efforts to fix them, and they could allow poll workers to tamper with election results, according to a government-ordered study obtained Tuesday by the Associated Press.

At the request of Secretary of State Kurt Browning, a Florida State University information technology laboratory went over a list of previously discovered flaws to see if the machines were still vulnerable to attack.

"While the vendor has fixed many of these flaws, many important vulnerabilities remain unaddressed," the report said.

The lab found, for example, that someone with only brief access to a machine could replace a memory card with one programmed to read one candidate's votes as counting for another, essentially switching the candidates and showing the loser winning in that precinct.

"The attack can be carried out with a reasonably low probability of detection assuming that audits with paper ballots are infrequent," the report said.

Browning sent Diebold a letter Tuesday asking the flaws be fixed by Aug. 17.

"To Diebold's credit, they have come to the table and been willing to get these changes made and get them made timely," Browning told the Associated Press.

A company spokesman said the deadline will be met.

"These are not major changes and we are confident we can meet the deadline," said Mark Radke, who also said the company has worked well with the state. "We look forward to continuing this relationship and to continuing to improve the security of our elections systems."

Browning said the memory cards are locked in machines and only a few people have access to them in a setting where others wouldn't see them unscrewing machines, breaking seals and switching cards.

"It is not where you just walk up to a machine and pop out a card," he said.

Tampering with the software is much easier in a laboratory than trying to carry out the same actions during an election, Browning said. Still, he said, his office will advise county elections supervisors on steps that should be taken to ensure machines won't be tampered with.

Florida's voting system drew national attention in 2000, when dimpled, pregnant and hanging chads on punch-card ballots held up a final count in the presidential election. Florida was eventually decided by 537 votes after the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in, handing the election to George Bush. The state has since banned the punch cards.

Now, 15 of Florida's 67 counties use paperless touch screen voting machines, while the rest use optical-scan machines where a voter marks a paper ballot with a pencil and it is electronically scanned. Touch screen machines are being scrapped because of a newly signed state law that requires a verifiable paper trail for all voting machines.