Alarm about voting machines

The votescam debate and discussion are no longer limited to Internet conspiracy sites. They have moved to the pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times, British newspapers and CNN broadcasts.

Topic No. 1 is electronic voting machines: are they safe and secure, or an invitation to massive voter fraud?

Not long after the election of 2002, The Associated Press reported: “A defective computer chip in the county’s optical scanner misread ballots Tuesday night and incorrectly tallied a landslide victory for Republicans. Democrats actually won by wide margins.”

The mistake was caught by alert poll workers who became suspicious because they knew their county overwhelmingly favored the Democrat incumbent.

In Texas, three different candidates each won their races by exactly the same amount—18,181 votes.

These were but a few of the strange results of computerized voting machines reading and then tabulating paper or punchcard ballots.

In Georgia and Florida, paper ballots were not used. Voting was done entirely by touch-screen computerized machines. The 2002 election results in these states were startling, to say the least.

Again and again, the machines awarded victories to Republican candidates even though all pre-election polls showed their Democrat opponents well out in front in all races.

The touch-screen machines leave no paper audit trail. Votes cannot be traced, or positively recounted.

Closer to home, The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported a few days before the election that the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone had not changed voters’ firm allegiance to the Democratic column.

Wellstone’s replacement, former Vice President Walter Mondale, led Republican Norm Coleman by 47 to 39 percent. When the smoke cleared on election day, however, Coleman had defeated Mondale by 50 to 47 percent. Was it accurate? We’ll never know.

Just this month, the Virginia State Board of Elections was preparing to certify an upgrade to that state’s electronic voting machines.

What troubled them was a report from Johns Hopkins University computer scientists warning the machines are vulnerable to hacking and tampering.

A consultant scoffed at the conclusions, assuring the board the machines are safe. “I hope you’re right,” Chairman Michael Brown said. “Because when they get ready to hang the three of us in effigy, you won’t be here,” according to a report in The Washington Post.

They were talking about Diebold Election System’s voting machines. These machines are used in 37 states. A recently passed law requires all states and all counties to use touch-screen machines by 2005.

An inquisitive businesswoman discovered a Web site where Diebold voting system files had been stored, open to access by anyone, for several years.

She studied these files, and so did the scientists at Johns Hopkins University. What did they conclude about the security of these machines and this system?

They said you can overwrite votes. You can vote more than once. The machines are open to inside and outside attacks. Audit logs can be overwritten. You can give passwords to all your friends.

Researchers commented: “Our analysis shows that this voting system is far below even the most minimal security standards applicable in other contexts.”

The New York Times, on July 24, ran an article about the findings of Bev Harris, author of Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century. On July 8, an Internet site called Scoop Media published the location of a complete set of Diebold files. The publisher of Scoop Media said he believed the files were critical to determining if Diebold officials and certifiers have been truthful about voting machine security.

The reports now coming out about electronic voting machines are causing officials great concern. Maryland just spent $55 million for 11,000 Diebold touch-screen machines. Maryland election officials said they are calling in an international computer security firm to check them out. They said if too many flaws are found, the sale is off.

So what’s the problem? Lynn Landes, a reporter who has published extensive articles on these machines, said: “There are several issues here. First, there’s the issue that the Voting Rights Act requires that poll watchers be able to observe the vote. But with computerized voting machines, your vote vanishes into a computer and can’t be observed.”

That’s what is prompting a growing call for a paper audit trail that would allow election officials to make their own count of the vote.

“Second,” said Landes, “there’s the issue of who controls the information. Of all the functions of government that should not be privatized, handling our votes is at the top of the list. This is the core of democracy, and must be open, transparent, and available to both the public and our politicians of all parties for full and open inspection.”

Diebold has issued a 27-page rebuttal to the researchers’ findings, claiming the information analyzed was outdated.

“The most important thing about the Hopkins report is not the security holes they found, but the irrefutable proof that all this stuff that the machines are secure is hot air,” said David Dill, computer scientist at Stanford University.

The companies that make and operate these voting machines are all owned by right-wing Republicans. One of the most glaring examples was in Nebraska, where Chuck Hagel ran for the U.S. Senate while owning the company that made the machines that counted the vote. He won by a big margin.

These companies answer to no one, and they do not allow anyone—even election officials—to see how the votes are tallied. The software programs are held to be proprietary information and therefore confidential. Diebold machines will be used in California’s gubernatorial recall vote.

“If you want to make Coca-Cola and have trade secrets, that’s fine,” said Harvard Ph.D. Rebecca Mercuri, a leading expert on voting machines, “but don’t try to claim trade secrets when you’re handling our votes.”

In Winnebago County, as in most Illinois counties, the public is barred from access to the vote counting center.

Editor’s Note: Check upcoming issues of The Rock River Times for the full Washington Post report, “Jolted Over Electronic Voting.” The article will be reprinted in its entirety thanks to the gracious permission of Linda Grist Cunningham, executive editor of the Rockford Register Star. The local daily has exclusive rights to the Washington Post’s articles, but has permitted the report to be published here in The Rock River Times.

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