Thursday, January 29, 2009

Child's Play

American Scofflaw

A Princeton University professor demonstrated in court today how New Jersey’s most widely used voting machines can be opened with a screwdriver and their computer chips swapped by hand.

“The machines are large and heavy. They’re left in the polling places for a few days until a trucking company can pick them up,” Andrew W. Appel, a computer-science professor, testified. “Many of the polling sites are unlocked. Anyone … can open it up and replace the software inside with fraudulent software.”

The trial, in Superior Court in Mercer County, pits voting-rights activists against state election officials. Judge Linda R. Feinberg will decide whether the machines, the Sequoia Advantage, are unreliable and, therefore, unconstitutional, as the activists claimed in a lawsuit.

About 10,000 Sequoia Advantage models are used in 18 of 21 counties. Election officials and the manufacturer, Sequoia Voting Systems of California, say the equipment does its job consistently and accurately. They say New Jerseyans’ votes are recorded correctly.

In court, Appel demonstrated on one of two machines parked before Feinberg’s bench. He looked something like an auto mechanic peering beneath a hood, albeit one dressed in a suit and minus the grease stains.

He picked apart the equipment, patiently answering questions from lawyers and Feinberg. Out came the motherboard and audio kit, and various read-only memory, or ROM, chips. He spoke about firmware, or chips containing data or programs.

A tamperer, he said, has many options.

“The most significant vulnerability is the ability of an attacker to install fraudulent firmware in order to manipulate an election,” Appel said.

The case began nearly five years ago, when Mercer County resident Stephanie Harris voted in a presidential primary. Her machine appeared to malfunction, and she was not certain whether her ballot was correctly counted. Harris and fellow activists sued, asking that the machines be banned.

The activists want the electronic equipment replaced with optical scanners. That technology relies on paper ballots, which voters fill in with pencil and feed into scanning devices.

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