WASHINGTON -- Computerized touch-screen voting machines purchased by dozens of Pennsylvania counties and other local governments this year contain worrisome security limitations, according to a draft report from a federal agency.
The report, compiled in November by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, warns that the machines are "software-dependent," meaning there is no satisfactory way to ensure that election results haven't been affected by errors or fraud.
It's the first time a major federal agency has raised such strong concerns, although computer experts and voting rights activists have been highlighting them for several years. Many computer scientists support the use of fill-in-the-bubble optical scan ballots, which received prominent mention in the NIST report as an alternative that could rely on hand recounts if necessary.
"It's an absolute step in the right direction," Marybeth Kuznik, executive director of VotePA and a poll worker in Westmoreland County, said of the report. "There has to be a verification system that is not dependent on software."
NIST's draft recommendations, which must be approved by the federal Election Assistance Commission, will be discussed Monday and Tuesday in public meetings at the agency's headquarters in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C.
The commission's standards on voting equipment are voluntary, but most states, including Pennsylvania, follow them closely. At the earliest, new standards wouldn't be in place until 2009, after the next presidential election.
Local governments across the country have spent billions of dollars on new machines in recent years to meet the requirements of the Help America Vote Act, a law that grew out of Florida's disputed 2000 presidential election and led to the creation of the commission.
Many Pennsylvania counties -- including Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Cambria, Greene and Westmoreland -- purchased the Election Systems & Software iVotronic, a touch-screen machine that falls short of the standard put forward in the NIST report.
"We have built into our systems unique and proprietary safeguards to ensure security," said Ken Fields, a spokesman for ES&S, a Nebraska company. "Those features have been proven through extensive testing and use in thousands of elections. While we are still reviewing the draft report, we take very strong exception to any suggestion that ES&S voting equipment is not secure."
Kevin Evanto, a spokesman for Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, said county officials and voters have been satisfied with the iVotronic.
"This is a draft report from an advisory agency," he said of the NIST report. "We've gone through a multiyear process. Our machines were tested and certified. We've used them now in two elections."
But voting-rights activists point out that the Nov. 7 general election produced many serious machine mishaps, including 18,000 "undervotes" in a close congressional race in Florida's Sarasota County, which also uses the iVotronic.
The NIST report acknowledges such concerns.
"The lack of an independent audit capability in [touch-screen] voting systems is one of the main reasons behind continued questions about voting system security and diminished public confidence in elections," the report says.
Allegheny County officials have negotiated a deal with ES&S to add paper printers to the machines that would let voters independently check their choices, but those printers aren't legal in Pennsylvania because they could compromise voter privacy.
Optical scan machines, however, are legal, and 13 of the state's 67 counties already use them, according to Cathy Ennis, a spokeswoman for the Department of State.
Warren Stewart, policy director of VoteTrustUSA, calls the NIST report a "ringing endorsement" of optical scan ballots.
"We need to have a system that anyone can understand," he said. "Everyone can understand making a mark on a piece of paper."
But the report doesn't explicitly recommend the use of optical scan ballots, or voter-verifiable paper trails.
Mr. Stewart, whose group has been a vocal critic of computerized voting, argues that those systems would just add another layer of complexity and wouldn't satisfy voters.
Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at email@example.com or 202-488-3479.