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Elections chief calls for better vote security

WASHINGTON -- Better safeguards against glitches and hacking are needed to avoid a high-tech version of the messy Florida recount battle in the 2000 presidential election, the top US elections official said yesterday.

"We're recommending that every voting jurisdiction that uses electronic voting do something about security that they have not done before," US Elections Assistance Commission Chairman DeForest Soaries said in an interview.

It could be a printer that creates a paper trail of votes, more advanced technologies like voice identification and cryptography, or a simple random check of the machines on Election Day, he said.

Soaries declined to endorse a specific remedy like the printers, which some advocates say could create a reliable paper trail to guard against malfunctioning machines.

With less than five months to go to the November elections, he cautioned that a rushed installation of unproven printers could create more problems than it solves.

"If our commission invests in that as a solution, then we set ourselves up for the printer version of the hanging chad," he said.

Roughly one in three US voters is expected to cast their ballot on electronic machines like Diebold Inc.'s Accuvote TS in November.

A government-run reference library could also help officials determine if software on a particular machine has been altered since it was certified.

Soaries said he would submit his proposals to the Elections Assistance Commission for approval within the next few days.

The new commission was created to help states upgrade their voting equipment from the creaky punch-card systems that figured so prominently in Florida's election debacle, though it does not have the power to dictate standards to states.

Avi Rubin, a Johns Hopkins computer-science professor who has uncovered security flaws in a Diebold system, said Soaries was constrained by limited resources and a need to avoid alienating local officials who will oversee the elections.

"He knows he can't take giant steps right now, but he took some baby steps and they were in the right direction," Rubin said.

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