E-voting technology gets a road test

VoteFiler online/offline system works well for the NAACP

Lingering questions about security and reliability could mean electronic voting is still not ready for the national spotlight.

Still, one company is taking its technology out on the road in preparation for the big time. Comfidex Corp. of New York is letting private organizations and universities put its VoteFiler system through its paces in nongovernmental elections before going into public polling places. Not only does the private sector offer a large potential market, 'it will be an important part of our process for breaking into the government market,' said Comfidex chief technology officer John Philpit.

'By opening ourselves up now, it is our hope that by the time we actually run a public election with our software, John and I won't have to disappear for three months,' said president Bill Stratigos.

VoteFiler is a hybrid system that lets voters create ballots online in advance of an election and cast the paper ballots at the polling place on election day. The goal is to give the efficiency of electronic vote tabulation with the security of a paper ballot that can be used for verification and recounting.

'We don't let people vote at home,' Stratigos said. 'We let people create ballots at home' so that they do not have to do that job at the polls.

VoteFiler software is used to put up a Web site where ballot selections can be made. Once a precinct's ballot has been finalized, voters can visit the site to make choices and print out the finished ballot.

The selections are stored in a database and tied to a unique bar code on the paper ballot. On election day, the bar code is scanned at the polling place. If the bar code has not yet been used and it matches identifiers in the database, the ballot is accepted and the voter's selections are moved into a vote database where they can be counted.

If the ballot is not accepted for any reason, the voter can vote using traditional machines in the polling place. A voter can also change their selections and print out a new ballot at any time prior to the election, because no vote is cast until the bar code is scanned and accepted at the poll.

Votes are tallied from the votes database, and in case of a recount, the paper ballots are available for optical scanning or a manual recount.

The system employs third-party, off-the-shelf Web servers and databases, but the security is built into the VoteFiler software. Officials say security has been improved in the most recent version 1.5 release so that any tampering in the database will be evident.

'We can't say no one will ever be able to make changes,' Stratigos said. 'But it can be impossible for us not to see them.'

VoteFiler has not received federal certification for voting equipment, and Stratigos said that two things are needed before the system is ready for public elections. One is an integrator that can manage and run large-scale implementations.

The other thing needed is better software quality assurance.

'We want to feel confident we have taken every precaution' in eliminating bugs from the system, Stratigos said. How close is Comfidex to that assurance? 'I think we'll have a better answer by mid-summer,' as the system gets more tryouts in the private sector.

Comfidex is working with a university that wants to use the system. It will test it first with a dummy election in which students will be challenged to hack it. Philpit said this kind of real-world test would go a long way toward proving the system.

One recent live tryout was with the Pennsylvania National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which used VoteFiler for its statewide elections. More than 100 voting delegates gathered in October for the annual meeting, when ballots were cast for a slate of 25 positions. The group wanted to announce election results at that evening's dinner, said Thomas A. Smith Jr., president of the state conference of NAACP branches.

'In previous years everything was done manually, and the outcome might not be announced until the next day,' Smith said. 'It required them to be up all night to collate the ballots.'

The NAACP settled on VoteFiler. 'It answered our concerns,' Smith said. 'I was quite pleased with it.'

But hybrid solutions that combine electronics with paper could help make electronic systems more acceptable as the technology matures, Philpit said.

'This might be the first step toward real Internet voting,' he said. 'I don't think people are comfortable with that, but by the time online reliability and security is adequate, the comfort level might be high enough.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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