A STEP FORWARD IN THE VOTING WARS

The polling places in Iraq are front-and-center this week, but the jagged scars of our own election are still far from healed. Part of the problem is that, no matter what the count, many people do not trust results from electronic voting machines. Democracy suffers when there's reason to doubt that the rightful winner is the one who gets sworn into office.

So it's nice to be the first to report a development that might help things out. A renowned cryptographer with a keen interest in voting, David Chaum has persuaded a team of election officials, computer scientists, interest-group advocates and voting-equipment makers to join in a coalition called Voting Systems Performance Rating (VSPR). The goal is to generate a set of voting-system standards that everyone can agree on--sort of a Consumer Reports for election machines. There would be ratings in areas like security, privacy, reliability and accessibility to the elderly and the disabled. After the group does its work, states and counties would have a way to evaluate voting equipment before they buy. Voters could be more effective watchdogs, since VSPR's work would be public. "In voting systems, the thing you need most is transparency," says Chaum.

"Something like this is desperately needed," says Tracy Westen, head of the Center for Governmental Studies, which will participate in another new group, the Voting Systems Institute, that will support and implement the work of the VSPR. "Otherwise we're wandering around in the wilderness."

Uniform standards for voting machines seem like such an obvious step that you may well ask why it's taken so long to get this far. Sadly, instead of working together on behalf of the voters, the various players in the election world have spent much too much time sniping at each other and looking out for their own interests. Computer scientists think that election officials are ignorant when it comes to high-tech security. Election officials think the techies are dilettantes who don't understand the nitty-gritty of voting in the real world. And the equipment makers, while excited about selling expensive new gizmos, don't like sharing the secrets of how their systems work.

The founding VSPR members hope that the collaboration itself might remind everyone of their common interest: fair, accurate, inclusive elections. "The process might change the whole nature of the conversation," says Warren Slocum, the San Mateo County, Calif., election director.

That's why it's so promising that the new group has a broad mix of participants. The most obvious holdout to date, however, is Diebold, the only one of the three big election-equipment makers not onboard. Spokesperson Mark Radke says that the company is considering its participation, but couldn't say when it would decide. In the meantime Radke noted that just this January a study commissioned by Ohio's secretary of state found that Diebold had fixed all the serious vulnerabilities in its various voting systems that were noted in a previous report.

Does this mean Diebold's machines are trustworthy? Avi Rubin, a Johns Hopkins professor who focuses on election security, charges that the Ohio testing was inconclusive, done by people who "really didn't know much about security." If the experts disagree on this, imagine how hard it is for the voter to have any confidence in the process. That's why it's crucial that efforts like VSPR reach consensus on what makes a voting system safe, easy to use, robust, accessible and fair. Who would dare cast a ballot against that?

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