ES&: There’s nothing to hack in optical voting machine

Published 10:02 pm Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Selma city officials have asked Election Systems & Software to take every step to ensure the municipal election Aug. 26 goes smoothly.

The Selma City Council met in a special called session Wednesday to discuss the integrity of the voting machines that the city will use election day.

The machines are optical scanners, meaning they “read” ballots marked by voters.

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Some council members had raised concerns about individuals breaking into the software or hacking the machines prior to election day.

That won’t happen, said Mark Kelley, a representative of ES&S, because the machines have nothing in them to hack. There’s no way for the machine to communicate with a computer for a hacker to compromise its data.

“It has a cord and a cable and that’s it,” Kelley told the council and about 50 people who attended the meeting.

Kelley and Don Whitman, a technical specialist with ES&S, came at the request of Mayor James Perkins Jr.

Kelley walked through the safeguards ES&S has in place, such as the numbered locks by which the black boxes are placed in the machines; that technicians will come the day before the election and put the boxes, or “brains” into the machines, to deliver the machines to the polling places on Tuesday and promised other auditing features to ensure a fair vote tally.

A question that seemed to upset some members of the council rested in missing black boxes from the 2004 election.

Last week, Selma City Clerk Lois Williams explained the city couldn’t account for the boxes after the election four years ago and paid ES&S $6,000 for them. Later, the city found the boxes and returned them to ES&S and received a $6,000 reimbursement.

On Wednesday, Kelley said he was unaware of any return of the missing boxes.

This lead some council members to question if the boxes could be slipped into optical machines this year.

Kelley explained those boxes were programed for a specific election and could not.

The only way the missing boxes could surface would be if a software expert had access to proprietary information from ES&S and one of its old machines to reprogram the box, then slip it in the machines.

Council members talked about where to store the machines the one night the machines have the data boxes in them, but didn’t make a decision.

It’s uncertain if the discussion of where the city will store the voting machines will continue at the city council’s regular meeting on Monday.