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Casting doubt

Nathan Rodriguez
photo illustration by Amanda Swanson
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About 40 days before the election, Eagle County clerk Teak Simonton gave a brief run-down of the voting machines.Naturally, everything seemed in order: candidates names appeared, boxes were easily marked, and a review screen at the end would allow voters to double-check selections before printing the ballot. Easy enough, right?Theres nothing easy about elections, Simonton said, referring to the myriad tests, retests, training, public scrutiny and need for absolute accuracy in conducting an election. The public scrutiny piece where voters get a chance to check out the machines and ask questions is both required by law, and the likely source of many headaches for public officials.Ever since the hotly contested election of 2000, voting machines have been under fire. Anecdotes about machines not working, being hacked, or generating inaccurate results can sound liked Democracys worst nightmare or the domain of sour grape left-wingers sitting in a tree-house, imaginatively connecting a few unrelated dots. To find out if concerns about voting machines are valid, we conducted a little audit of our own and double-checked claims made by voting machine vendors, election officials and voting activists.

On the night of the 2000 election, Al Gore called George W. Bush congratulating him on his victory in Florida and the election. Shortly thereafter came the first public signal that voting machines may be unreliable, as Gore received a little over negative 16,000 votes in Volusia County. He placed another call to Bush, rescinded his concession, and the next week of news was devoted to dangling and dimpled chads.Im no computer scientist, but with what little I know from being a computer programmer for 10 years, Im pretty sure there should never be a negative total in a voting machine, said Brad Friedman, creator of TheBradBlog, a Web site that has broken a number of stories related to voting machines. Thats something theyve never explained … and now weve got the same non-working voting machines across the nation. People may be a little more aware of the problem, but most of the media are out to lunch, as are politicians from both parties. Theyre just barely on this side of completely clueless.David King, a professor of political science at Harvard, said he felt a number of improvements have been made since 2000.Its dramatically better than it was in 2000, from beginning to end: voting registration, processing absentee ballots and provisional ballots, mechanically recording the vote, tallying the vote, reopening the vote and auditing the vote, he said. In every state and every jurisdiction, weve seen a huge improvement. Does that mean we have a good system? No, probably not; but it has improved.David Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford and prominent voting machine expert, agreed there have been improvements since 2000, and said it only seems things have worsened because machines are under closer scrutiny.Florida caused everyone to wake up, but progress has been slow and we still have a long way to go, he said. We know machines arent very fast, accurate or trustworthy … The real issue is credibility of election results, and it gets down to what extent we can independently check results.

This election cycle, the national spotlight that was on Florida in 2000 could shine on Colorado. And even though electronic voting machines are designed to replace the mechanical machines that plagued Florida, the few test results that are publicly available indicate there may be a few bumps along the road as well.Less than two weeks ago, Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report concluded Colorado was the one state most likely to determine who will be the next occupant of the White House. The importance of this should not be left to machines, said Ken Gordon, Colorado Senate majority leader and a Democrat. Everyone who uses computers know theyre great tools, but sometimes they lose information or crash, he said. People in Colorado should vote by mail this year, not only because of machines, but to reduce pressure on county clerks, because theres going to be such a high turnout this year. But such fears over voting machines are unfounded, said Rich Coolidge, spokesman for the Colorado Secretary of States office. He said the federal government has already certified the machines, and that Colorado legislation added another layer of testing, which has the secretary of state conduct its own certification of the voting equipment.Last year, we certified machines and tested components of almost every machine used in Colorado, Coolidge said. You can go to our Web site [www.sos.state.co.us] under voting systems and see all the tests and documentation. Theres hundreds of thousands of pages.Not everyone is buying it, though. John Morse, a state senator and Democrat from Colorado Springs, said voting by mail remains the only secure method of voting.At this point were going ahead with the election and nothing can be done about [voting machines], he said. When the machines were tested and we found problems, it was like, What do we do? I dont know, lets unplug it and turn it back on. That actually happened during the testing phase.Colorados recent history is replete with voting machine issues. In 2006, Conroy v. Dennis forced the Secretary of States office to set standards for certifying voting machines, with Judge Lawrence Manzaneres commenting that the secretary of state failed to develop minimum security standards, and did an abysmal job documenting certification testing.Secretary of State Mike Coffman, a Republican, said his top priority in assuming office would be to decertify inaccurate voting machines, and he did just that in December 2007 following a recommendation from the state testing board.A combination of factors, including an outcry from county clerks, caused Coffman to push for House Bill 1155, which lent him flexibility in reviewing voting machines. The bill shot through the state legislature, and within weeks most of the voting machines were conditionally certified.Sen. Morse was incensed. When the Secretary of State tests the machines, finds they dont work, and then three weeks later comes back and says, No wait, they do, its incompetent, inept or illegal, one way or the other.Harvie Branscomb of the Eagle County Democrats said he felt House Bill 1155 violated due process by not fully testing machines, and that not much is known about the additional testing performed.So the Secretary of States office brought them back, but asked for and got an amendment that its ruling is only in effect for the next two years, and the machines will be decertified at that time.This begs the question: Whats in those hundreds of thousands of documents that make the machines good for this election, and this election only?

Colorado relies on Sequoia, Premier (formerly known as Diebold), Hart Intercivic, and ES&S to supply voting machines for the state.Eagle County uses Hart Intercivic, and while the hundreds of thousands of pages sounded daunting, it only took a few afternoons to sift through all the materials published on the Secretary of State Web site regarding Hart and it aint pretty.The majority of documents only provide more ammunition for voter activists, as they detail the numerous failings of Hart machines to properly count votes.More to the point, the 2007 detail test summary shows the machines scored 68.05 percent on the functional test, or a D+ in ballot counting.Equally disturbing were the numerous e-mails between the Secretary of States office and Hart, where documents were unaccounted for in 18 areas. Documentation was not provided on how the company monitored and responded to hacking threats, test logs were missing, nor was there evidence of the average lifetime for machines, proof the installed software was up to standard, and even evidence the software was what the company claimed.John Gardner from the Secretary of States office seemed particularly put-off by the latter, and chastised Kassie Keller from Hart via e-mail in April 2007:You indicate that because Hart does the installations that you are exempt from providing a list of executables … It seems that since your technicians are performing the installation, you would be aware of exactly the executables necessary … The intention of our office is to use this list of executables to … ensure that ONLY the trusted build software (and components) are installed on the system. I do not therefore see how Hart could be not applicable to this sort of requirement.Finally, the major deficiencies report for Hart in February 2008 showed the voting systems certification staff marked 1,200 ballots, ran them through the scanners twice and got different results each time.The quick answer to these complaints is the documents generally refer to Harts 6.0 software, not the 6.2.1 version to be used in the election next month.But thats part of the problem, argued Harvie Branscomb, because the new software wasnt fully tested by the state, and voters must take the voting machine vendor at its word that its new software has solved problems found in the previous version.The Secretary of State had the software tested by the firm of Freeman, Craft & McGregor, whose report caused Coffman to conditionally certify Hart for the election.Unfortunately, that report is not publicly available so it is not possible to investigate its veracity.What is publicly available is the pre-certification evaluation for Hart 6.2.1, in which the testers observed, Most of the problem patterns from the System 6.0 testing remained, and a few new ones add (sic), but the overriding issue of inconsistent detection and tabulation remained.Friedman said such results were inexcusable.The fact they are still using these machines in Colorado with what we know about them in perhaps the biggest and most important election in our time, I think is an incredible indictment and shows an extraordinary lack of respect for voters and democracy, he said. Voters of Colorado should be absolutely outraged at the Secretary of State.Marcus MacNeill, vice president of marketing for Hart, was undaunted, and said he is confident the election will go smoothly.The Secretary of State group that does the testing went through the appropriate certification process for 6.2.1, finished their testing about a week ago, and granted temporary certification on that software, he said. It may be new to the state, but [6.2.1] is certainly not new to the company we released it a few years ago. Were looking forward to another smooth election this year.

Despite Harts results with the state testing board, Simonton said she hasnt witnessed any significant issues with Eagle Countys machines.Any problems have been minor, with printer connections and that sort of thing, she said. Weve never had any accuracy or programming issues whatsoever.Simonton said she has enough paper ballots for 60 percent of active voters, but stops short of recommending any method of voting.Its the longest ballot weve ever had, and we just want to encourage people to consider their options, she said. With that length of ballot, theres no way to estimate how long it will take people to vote. We have lots of staff and lots of paper, but there are physical limitations, too.For his part, Harvie Branscomb remains unsatisfied with voting machines, but felt Eagle County should be in good hands for the election. He said the review screens cut off the last names of some candidates, like Eagle County commissioner candidate Dick Gustafson and US Senate candidate Douglas Dayhorse Campbell, nor is there enough space for the text of ballot initiatives, so voters will only see a list of 19 initiatives, and yes or no, without additional text. To be fair, voters are able to scroll back to an earlier screen, but Branscomb felt this could be the source of some confusion.These machines are very complex and not as well-designed as consumer electronics, and weve gotten all kinds of weird behaviors, with random results generated that arent partisan-specific at all, he said. But as long as we have bipartisan oversight at the county, we should be able to figure out if something isnt right. There may be inaccurate results, but not in Eagle County.Both Simonton and Branscomb encouraged Eagle County voters to attend a public test of the voting machines on October 13.

Its been written that the presidential election isnt one single election, but 13,000 small elections.The question isnt whether voting machines are 100 percent accurate, as almost any computer scientist will say such a thing is not currently possible. Rather, its a question of just how large a margin of error voters and public officials will accept before demanding a new system.And the question of whether were better off than in 2000 may be a tad presumptuous, said Bill Goodstein, historian and author of Robert Speers Denver. Election Day used to be a very good day for those who wanted to go out and earn some money. The idea was to vote early and vote often, and youd get something in exchange for your vote, he said. Were much worse today than we were 100 years ago. At least back then the poor working slobs could get a couple bucks for their vote.In addition to the machines breaking down on their own, Brad Friedman said he was concerned about hackers. Its been proven that with just 60 seconds of access, someone can flip an entire election, he said, referring to a recent demonstration by the University of California-Santa Barbara. While UCSB has since removed the video, Friedman has kept it posted on his site. He also referenced a Princeton study showing a virus in one machine can spread to all others in the county and flip election results. Barring those developments, Friedman said a hacker could simply wave a magnet in front of a machine, cause it to crash, and ensure longer lines at a precinct.Back at Harvard, Dr. King said such fears were overblown, because the hacking occurred in a lab setting, while an election would have greater oversight.But Dr. Dill, the computer scientist from Stanford, sided with Friedman, saying he shared the same concerns.Theres no functional difference between an election and a lab setting. People could easily hack them during an election, or when the machines are just sitting around before the election, he said. I dont know David King, but honestly thats more of a standard talking point for blowing off some extremely compelling evidence of problems with machines.Heres the rub with voting machines: Election officials will continue to face questions regardless of test results. If testing shows flaws, voter activists are usually quick to draw attention. If testing shows the machines are accurate, well, then there are questions about how rigorous an examination the machines were given.At this point it seems theres just too much gray area to give most voters complete confidence the machines will be accurate. And for all the disagreement over the quality and reliability of voting machines, there was one thing absolutely everyone agreed on any concerns over voting machines are not an excuse to stay at home on Election Day.Dill echoed Friedman, who said that was his primary concern about raising questions.I always worry that pointing out flaws might discourage people from voting, Dill said. That is not a valid reason not to vote. Any worries about a miscount really pale in comparison to deliberately not casting a vote. Nathan Rodriguez may be reached for comment at nrodriguez@vailtrail.com


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