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Brunner’s EVEREST Report Finds Vulnerabilities in Ohio Voting System

OhioNews Bureau

ONB COLUMBUS: With $100 million in federal Help America Vote Funds having been spent already to purchase thousands of electronic voting machines used in Ohio’s 88 counties, the $1.9 million more in federal funds just spent by Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner to perform a comprehensive review of voting systems used in the state seems only to have further muddied the waters of what to do for the 2008 March primaries and the fall general elections, when a massive turnout is expected for the race for the White House.

Among her top recommendations are ditching the state's direct-recording-electronic (DRE) machines, moving to a 100 percent central-count optical scan system, eliminating individual precincts in favor of vote centers and adopting early voting.

All eyes were awaiting the results of her much-awaited EVEREST report, whose controversy over testers and methodology caused it to be delayed by state legislators who held the keys to funding it, and who impressed upon Brunner the importance of appointing a bi-partisan review board of election officials that raised concerns among voting-rights advocates, who some said were generally excluded from participating in the analysis.

The findings and recommendations of the report were made public Friday morning. In prepared remarks, Brunner, a Democrat approaching her first year on the job as Ohio’s chief elections officer, said what everyone already knew, namely, that the state’s electronic voting systems have “critical security failures” which could impact the integrity of elections in the Buckeye State.”

“The results underscore the need for a fundamental change in the structure of Ohio’s election system to ensure ballot and voting system security while still making voting convenient and accessible to all Ohio voters.

“In an era of computer-based voting systems, voters have a right to expect that their voting system is at least as secure as the systems they use for banking and communication.” [Jennifer Brunner]

CALVARY CALLS FOR VENDOR ACCOUNTABILITY

Now that the report is out, it surely will become a political football, which will only lead to further delays. And the fact that the Election Law @ Moritz group found Ohio's voting system to be the worst of five Midwestern state they analyzed doesn't help either.

In a media release today from Senate Minority Leader Teresa Fedor from Toledo, she thanked Brunner for being "out in front of this critical issue.” Restating the obvious, Fedor, who heads the 12 Democrats in the Senate, said, There is nothing more important to our democracy than an election system that is fair and transparent" and that instead of waiting to see what problems may arise in the future (that horse has left the barn), she said Brunner's report is "a good first step toward meaningful reform."

She then urged Senate President Bill Harris and House Speaker Jon Husted, two people who have ever reason to torpedo the "meaningful reform" she spoke about, to form a joint, bipartisan committee to study the report's findings and then "act on its recommendations so that we can move forward.”

Fedor said she wants to "hold voting machine manufacturers responsible for their role in providing machines that fail to meet even basic and standard security measures."

“We have been sold a false bill of goods, and we need to ensure that the taxpayers aren’t the ones stuck holding the tab. We need to hold these manufacturers accountable for their poor designs and work toward ensuring our voting system is a model for the rest of the nation. We need to do what’s right for Ohio’s voters to improve the integrity of Ohio’s voting systems.” [Sen. Teresa Fedor]

To her credit and for the record, in 2004 Fedor initiated the Ohio Joint Committee on Ballot Security, a task force charged with examining security issues of new and old methods of voting, and making it’s recommendations to the entire General Assembly on how best to move forward in purchasing and implementing new electronic voting machines.

Through the committee’s work, Fedor’s primary objective -- the requirement of Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trails on every electronic voting machine in Ohio to serve as a system of checks and balances for Ohio’s election systems -- was achieved. But saying vendors should be held accountable and actually holding them accountable has yet to be achieved.

Even though one football season is over, it seems another one is ready to start with the kickoff of this report.

CRITICS FIND VULNERABILITIES IN BRUNNER REPORT

If you were the chairman of the Ohio GOP and the chairman of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections and a new Democratic secretary of state fired you and your board from running Ohio's biggest county's election system, you'd probably want to even the score when you could, right?

For Ohio GOP Chairman Robert T. Bennett, today was a chance to do that. He said the report was "nothing more than Jennifer Brunner throwing a bone to the activist groups that seek to undermine Ohio's election system." Citing pages from the report that supported his claim that the results were skewed to the personal agendas of its authors, Bennett said the findings were hyped. The Ohio GOP, combing through the report's 86 pages, got in Brunner's face as much as they could.

"I think our board officials are the experts on Ohio's election system and we should defer to their judgment. They are not comfortable with the secretary's conclusion and neither am I." [Bob Bennett, Ohio GOP]

Brad Friedman of The Brad Blog," the Jack Webb of voting Websites, questioned why Brunner didn't decertify Ohio's voting machines as California SOS Bowen did when her report found her state's machine's untrustworthy. He also linked to an article on Brunner's report authored by Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman, two reporters for the Columbus Free Press who he said were "the most assiduous of media investigators into what happened during Ohio's 2004 Presidential election."

The Columbus duo said Brunner's recommendations, far from helpful, could actually lead to more voting system troubles. They said the report's findings that hacking is easy provides further proof to their contention of election stealing in 2004, a story of conspiracy Bennett refuses, for obvious reasons, to acknowledge in any way shape or form.

"In other words, Ohio's top election official has finally confirmed that the 2004 election could have been easily stolen." [Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wassereman, Columbus Free Press]

They also raise concerns with centralized vote tabulations, the high probability of voter fraud or "vote buying" with absentee or mail-in voting, two of Brunner's recommendations.

Fitrakis and Wasserman and others continue to question why Brunner and new Democratic Attorney General Marc Dann, who both said during their campaigns that they would look into 2004 voting irregularities if elected, have not done anything after they were elected.

TRAVERSING THE EVEREST REPORT

The EVEREST report (Evaluation & Validation of Election-Related Equipment, Standards & Testing) was to be a comprehensive review of voting systems and voting machines used in Ohio and throughout the country. The systems tested for were:

- risks to vote security,
- system performance, including load capacity,
- configuration to currently certified systems specifications, and
- operations and internal controls that could mitigate risk.

Funded by $1.9 million in federal funds, it allowed two teams of scientists, corporate and academic, to conduct parallel assessment of the security of the state’s three voting systems - Election Systems & Software (ES&S), Hart Intercivic and Premier Election Solutions (formerly Diebold) - in both voting and board of elections environments. These experts also came in for criticism.

Separate research was conducted on each voting system’s performance, configuration and operations and internal controls management. A bipartisan team of 12 election board directors and deputy directors advised the study and evaluated all reports and participated with Brunner and her staff advisers in making recommendations for change.

SIMPLE MAGNET CAN COMPROMISE ELECTION RESULTS

If the purpose of the report, as Brunner had stated so often before was to instill confidence in Ohio voters of the integrity of their system of voting, the results of it and her tepid recommendations on how to proceed and who will make those decisions seems to have done little to satisfy what average Ohioans already think about voting, let alone neutralize or rebut the accusations leveled by a growing group of voting-rights advocates who say she should have decertified the machines, as was done by California Secretary of State Debra Bowen who made that move after her test found machines to be untrustworthy.

While some tests to compromise voting systems took higher levels of sophistication, she said, fairly simple techniques were often successfully deployed by the testers. To hack Ohio’s voting system, you’ll have to bring more than your magnetic personality to do it, but not much more. According to public comments made by Brunner, to compromise an election on an electronic voting machine, “the tools needed to compromise an accurate vote count could be as simple as tampering with the paper audit trail connector or using a magnet and a personal digital assistant.”

She said the researchers in the Ohio study didn’t address the issue of probability of attack, leaving that to the determination of state and local officials. In a comment that many will wonder whether it was genuine or motivated by concerns for political correctness designed not to anger the local election officials who run elections and who many believe are poorly trained to begin with, Brunner’s report said that notwithstanding the lack of technical measures in voting system design, “its integrity ‘is provided purely by the integrity and honesty of election officials.’”

Voting-right advocates criticized the make up of Brunner’s bi-partisan review committee, alleging that the director of the Ohio Association of Election Officials, Aaron Ockerman, was a registered lobbyist for Election Systems & Software (ES&S), a voting machine vendor, held a fundraiser for her in 2006 when she rain for office and helped select members who had disposed of voting records from the controversial 2004 election in violation of directives from then-Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and a ruling by a federal court judge.

“It’s a testament to our state’s boards of elections officials that elections on the new HAVA mandated voting systems have gone as smoothly as they have in light of these findings.” [Jennifer Brunner]

Brunner said that testers looking at the performance of the voting systems used in Ohio and in many locales throughout the country identified numerous risks to election integrity ranging from minor to severe. She also said that those examining how voting systems were configured in the field found risks such as the use of materials like memory storage and printer paper that had not been certified by the voting system manufacturers; a lack of standardized equipment testing and that revisions to voting system software for all systems and counties were not documented or tracked. This should make us all feel better, right?

During the most recent election in November, Putnam County in northwest Ohio, performed poorly, some say, because they ignored four of Brunner’s Election Day directives and, as unconfirmed rumors had it, the breakdown in voting was attributed to the purchase of machine memory cards, not from their contracted vendor, ES&S, but through eBay, the online auction Website as a way to save money. So if voting would be even worse but for the expertise on local voting officials, the problems with Putnam, which likely aren’t isolated to that one county, Ohioans have a long road to travel before they can be completely assured that the system and the people that operate them are the best that money can buy.

EVEREST RECOMMENDATIONS

Brunner presented her recommendations and took questions from reporters and the public at a media event held in the Atrium of the Ohio Statehouse late Friday morning. The EVEREST report and its findings will be sent to Gov. Ted Strickland and legislative leaders for their consideration.
What Strickland and legislative leaders will see as the report’s top recommendations are as follows:

Eliminating points of entry creating unnecessary voting system risk by moving to Central Counting of Ballots

Eliminating Use of Direct Recording Electronic (DREs) and Precinct-based Optical Scan Voting Machines that tabulate votes at polling locations

Utilizing the AutoMark voting machine for voters with disabilities (This machine “reads” the bar code on a blank ballot and acts solely as a ballot marking device, allowing voters, especially those with disabilities, to mark ballots with little or no assistance, preserving the secrecy of their ballot selections.)

Requiring all ballots be Optical Scan Ballots for central tabulation and effective voter verification

Maintaining “no fault” absentee voting while establishing Early (15 days prior to the election) and Election Day Vote Centers (of the size of 5 to 10 precincts), eliminating voting at individual precincts or polling places of less than 5 precincts

Requiring all Special Elections (issues only) held in August 2008 to be voted by mail (no in-person voting, except at the board of elections, for issue-only elections held in August 2008)

HOW TO REMEDY THE CUYAHOGA COUNTY PRIMARY

With a swift indication for state funding assistance, Cuyahoga County could move to a central-count optical scan voting system in time for the March 2008 primary election by using leased DREs for precinct- based voting by persons with disabilities and purchasing high-speed optical scanners (with compatible server and software and voting booths) for optical-scan voting, according to the report.

Brunner reported that this option has been estimated to cost between $2 million and $2.5 million. All purchased equipment could transfer to a vote center voting system for use in November 2008, and extra voting booths not needed for vote centers could be redistributed to other counties migrating from DRE to optical scan central count vote centers. The county would be responsible for printing a sufficient number of ballots for the March primary election. If this option were approved, purchases would need to be made immediately, with reimbursement applied for by the secretary of state to the Ohio General Assembly to reimburse the Cuyahoga County commissioners for equipment purchases.

Cuyahoga County Commissioners have already expressed their grave concern with holding next year’s election with their current army of machines, and have asked Brunner to help them find money to replace them, which could be about $20 million.

DESCENDING FROM EVEREST: THE CONCLUSION

Brunner said the EVEREST study builds upon previous studies conducted around the country on voting systems and that the study of the ES&S systems is the first of its kind.

She noted that the Ohio study used testing done by both researchers from academic institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University and University of California at Santa Barbara,, as well as corporate security personnel from firms such as Systest Labs of Denver and MicroSolved, Inc. of Columbus, Ohio. The Battelle Memorial Institute of Columbus, a highly respected research titan, served as project manager.

Moreover researchers in the Ohio study had access to the computer source code provided by voting machine manufacturers as well as access to much of the equipment and documentation, Brunner added.

John Michael Spinelli is a former Ohio Statehouse government and political reporter and business columnist. He now serves as the OhioNews Bureau Chief for ePluribus Media Journal. Find ONB archives here.

If readers have a news tip or story idea about Ohio politics or government, contact the OhioNews Bureau at: ohionews@www.epluribusmedia.org