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Election

Good hackers say Sequoia’s more secure
So you want to figure out what kind of electronic voting machine is going to gather the votes of Nevadans accurately and securely in 2004? Just ask the state’s official slot machine hackers. Oh, wait, I forgot.

“We don’t call them hackers,” said Nevada Secretary of State Dean Heller. “We call them ‘forensic computer specialists.’ ”

It’s not every state that can boast of employing computer specialists who are skilled at the many ways to manipulate electronic gambling devices. Making sure video poker machines are secure is a critical endeavor, since fraud could cost both casino operators and the state plenty. Making sure voting machines are secure was also a high priority for Heller.

Before selecting Sequoia Voting Systems’ touch-screen machines as the statewide election solution, Heller asked the Electronic Services Division of Nevada’s Gaming Control Board to check out both systems.

At a press conference last week announcing his decision, Heller explained that he’d waited until the state hackers had completed their research before making the final call between two manufacturers: Sequoia or Diebold Voting Systems.

Marc McDermott, chief of the Electronic Services Division, told Heller that the Diebold machines, those used in the most recent Sparks election, represented “a legitimate threat to the integrity of the election process.”

Washoe County election officials preferred the Diebold machines, for which the county already owns the election management software system. The Sequoia touch-screen machines have been used in Las Vegas for the past 10 years.

One big glitch in Diebold’s security, McDermott noted, was that the source code for the Diebold system was made available on the Internet.

“This immediately raises many questions regarding the security of the entire Diebold software development and management process.”

Also, smart cards used as identification by voters at individual Diebold voting machines “send and accept data … in plain, unencrypted text.”

“This is a poor choice,” McDermott said in his report. This lack of security would make it easier for a hacker to get both the administrative password and the password used to authenticate the terminal to the smart card.

So, it’s Sequoia. And as an added boon to worried voters, Nevada will become the first state to mandate touch-screen machines with attached printers that will provide voter-verifiable receipts (VVRs). A voter will be able to check out the receipts under a piece of Plexiglas to ensure that the votes are tabulated accurately.

This move annoys several county registrars of voters, who view it as an unnecessary nuisance. For those with security concerns, it builds confidence that the election process won’t be corrupted by savvy techies.

Downside to VVRs? The technology isn’t federally certified for use, yet. The state will pay Sequoia $7.5 million for 1,804 touch-screen terminals to be delivered in March—minus the printers. In the best-case scenario, the VVRs will be submitted for certification in the first quarter of next year and will be ready to ship by late summer. Good news: The cost of the printers is included in the $7.5 million.

Election workers will begin training with the Sequoia touch-screen machines right away.

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Posted inDennis Myers Memorial

Election

Photo By Dennis Myers Washoe Republicans fit into a large conference room while Democrats used a ballroom.

Dueling conventions
Washoe County’s Republican and Democratic county conventions met during the same weekend this year, and the Democrats were easy winners at turnout. More than 400 Democrats signed in at the registration desk at one casino conference hall; across town fewer than 100 Republicans signed in at another casino.

When an aide to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid told the Democratic convention that only 98 people showed up for the Republican convention, the Democrats cheered, apparently interpreting the turnouts as an indicator of grassroots enthusiasm for the two parties, which it probably was not. Delegates to the county conventions are elected at precinct caucuses at which presidential preferences are voted on, and the Democrats this year had competing presidential candidates and an unsettled race to draw people to the caucuses. The GOP did not. (The number of delegates who signed in at the GOP convention was actually 78.)

Nevertheless, Republican publicist Robert Larkin gave the Democrats their due. He said Washoe County Democratic Chairman Chris Wicker “has gone a long way toward getting the Democrats in this county professionally organized.”

Some of the Democratic delegates said they also credit party manager Pam duPre, who has provided the party with a full-time presence at party headquarters.

Of the 427 Democratic delegates, John Kerry received votes from 354 (83 percent) and Dennis Kucinich 44 (10 percent), with one vote for Al Sharpton and 28 uncommitted. But the ballot allowed votes only for currently active candidates and no place to write in. Nineteen of the uncommitted voters, mostly labor union members, insisted on declaring for Howard Dean anyway.

Some of those drawn into the party by Dean said they enjoyed the caucuses but the convention seemed lumbering and bureaucratic, bogged down in things like credentials reports and the drafting of the platform (a statement of where the Washoe Democratic Party stands on local, state, national and international issues). One Dean delegate said she expected the convention to be a more practical, action-oriented event, with networking between local candidates or organizations and potential volunteers. Writing a county platform no one will likely ever read seemed pointless to her.

Longtime Democratic delegate Patricia Swain said, “There’s no reason you can’t do both. I’ve done some networking since I got here.” Nevertheless, some delegates did not return to the convention after the lunch break.

Although the Democrats had a presidential nominating contest this year and the Republicans did not, it was the Democratic convention that seemed more serene. Even the debate on the Democratic platform was relatively even-tempered.

During the Republican platform debates, one radio reporter said, “The Democrats were boring, but here they’re really fighting over things.” The Republicans had sharp exchanges on such polarizing issues as stem cell research, and at one point even argued about the meaning of the word “proscribe.”

The harshest moment in the Democratic debate came when a delegate objected to a plank in the county platform calling for repeal of George Bush’s principal education initiative, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2003, also known as “no child left behind.” The delegate, a teacher, was roundly booed, prompting Platform Committee Chairwoman Nancyann Leeder to reprimand the convention: “That’s not the democratic way. The democratic way is everyone gets heard, and the person you just booed is a very active person in both local and state PTA organizations.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...